Caché (France/Austria/Germany/Italy, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Guilt and paranoia - two powerful cornerstones of the human psyche. In his latest, award-winning drama (it has captured about a dozen significant international citations), writer/director Michael Haneke explores both, although the manner in which he weds them is more uneven than satisfying. With Caché, Haneke has a lot to say, but the weaknesses of the film threaten to overwhelm its strengths. This is one of those movies that will pit lovers of narrative filmmaking against those who view the medium as something potentially more esoteric. The way he toys with his audience indicates that Hanke falls into the latter category, and lapses of logic in his storyline don't overly concern him.

Caché's setup is powerful in the emotions it evokes. The Laurents - Georges (Daniel Auteuil), Anne (Juliette Binoche), and Pierrot (Lester Makesonsky) - are an average, middle-class Parisian family going about their daily routines until the arrival of a package from an anonymous sender. It contains a videotape that shows a two-hour surveillance of their front door made by a camera positioned down a street facing their townhouse. There's nothing remarkable on the tape - in addition to passing cars and long stretches of inactivity, it depicts Anne and Georges leaving for work. But the implications are ominous - someone is watching them. In short order, a second, similar tape arrives, accompanied by a childish but unsettling drawing. The police, when approached, say they cannot act until a crime is committed, leaving Georges and Anne to deal with this increasingly unpleasant situation on their own. The content of a third tape triggers a memory from Georges' past that provides him with a clue as to the possible identity of his harasser. He approaches the man, an immigrant named Majid (Maurice Bénichou) with a warning, and the next day his son disappears after school.

Caché starts out with a simple, effective premise: how would you react if you knew that your actions were being monitored by persons unknown with potentially unfriendly motives? The impact upon Georges and Anne's lives and marriage is immediately apparent. Paranoia and suspicion cloud their actions. Georges in particular becomes secretive. And they are uncertain how much to tell Pierrot. Too little could leave him unprepared in the case of an emergency. Too much could make him as jumpy as his parents.

After tinkering with these elements for a while, Haneke leads us down a different path - one that takes us into Georges' past, and shows how the actions of more than forty years ago can cloud the present. He jumps to conclusions - perhaps warranted, perhaps not - based as much on his own guilt as on the facts of today. And, despite his repeated protestations of blamelessness, we don't believe him and, more importantly, we know that he doesn't believe his own words.

The problem with Caché is that it fails to effectively integrate the two themes. The idea of the tapes becomes a convenient dramatic device that falls into the background once the story shifts its focus to how Georges' past influences his present. In the end, Haneke doesn't bother to reveal the identity of the sender, although it is possible to infer whom that person is. (Ultimately, there's only one suspect, although he pleads innocence.) This lack of closure or catharsis is part of the reason why the ambiguous final scene will lead to a sense of dissatisfaction for many viewers. A lack of closure isn't always a bad thing in a movie, but Caché feels unfinished, and that's not a positive quality.

Haneke's shot selection plays with us. He is meticulous about the way in which the videotapes are photographed, and he replicates their style repeatedly throughout the movie (long-range, unbroken shots made by a camera that is stationary). The director uses this approach to suggest the videotapes, but is it his intention to indicate that we are watching as a tape is made (perhaps one never sent to the Laurents), or is Haneke using this approach to indicate that we're all being watched at one time or another, regardless of whether our actions are being captured for posterity? The ambiguity is intentional. The answer will influence whether you accept the logical identity of the videographer.

While Caché offers food for thought, the last third is muddled. Although I understand the implications of culpability in Georges' reactions, and how they result in a tragic occurrence, there is no visceral impact. Haneke touches something primal in us all (the fear of being watched) in the early scenes, but he is not as successful in conveying another equally potent aspect of human nature - that of guilt.

Caché (France/Austria/Germany/Italy, 2005)

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou, Lester Makedonsky
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Christian Berger
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1