A View to a Kill
By Adam Nayman

Dir. Michael Haneke, France, Sony Pictures Classics

This week, a friend of mine suggested that Caché was Michael Haneke’s attempt to “pay his dues” to the political left. She’s oversimplifying things a bit, but her comments got me thinking: Where, exactly, to slot everybody’s (ok, not everybody’s) favorite Austrian provocateur in the movies-as-politics continuum? One critic whom I respect very much likened Code Unknown (which is, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my very favorite films of the last decade) to the handiwork of a misanthropic Zeus, hurtling accusatory thunderbolts without offering any hint as to how change might be properly catalyzed.

I guess he’s right: Code Unknown, for all its formal brilliance, is dire diagnosis without prescription. Of course, there’s a famous saying: “Prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.” That logic seems to be behind Haneke’s recent shift—following the taboo-baiting placeholder of The Piano Teacher—toward a fervent (if still thoroughly intellectualized) humanism in Time of the Wolf and Caché. More than Code Unknown and the chilly, condescending anti-thrillers (Benny’s Video, Funny Games) that preceded it, these films suggest that behind Haneke’s impeccably icy exteriors lies a hidden and beating heart.

Of course, Caché is hardly warm and fuzzy. It initially scans as a veritable inventory of contempt: for its bourgeois Parisian protagonists, Georges and Anne (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) their name-dropping literati friends, and for Haneke’s favorite target—the television set. There are two sequences depicting Georges at work— he’s the well-known host of a weekly arts and culture discussion program—that are simply vicious in their depiction of middlebrow intellectual discourse. But there’s even more kick in the shots showing Georges and Anne in their well-appointed home, boxed in by the signifiers of their cultural superiority. The composition of the frames is such that their crammed bookshelves and overstocked videotape library seem to be literally pinning them down.

The movies on their shelves, though, are the least of their problems: It’s the unmarked cassettes being left on their doorstep that are a real cause for concern. The pre-release notes for the film made it sound like an art-house Ringu—scary videotapes portending doom!—and sure enough, Caché assumes the guise of a thriller in its early movements. Georges and Anne can’t imagine who would want to take the time to videotape the exterior of their home, or why. The sense of threat is heightened when the tapes start to be accompanied by black-and-white-and-red-all-over drawings of people with bleeding mouths and decapitated chickens. They’re both perplexed, but Georges’s heightened confusion—he’s apoplectic around the eyes—suggests that he’s got an inkling of what’s going on.

And thus does Caché’s major theme emerge: the seductive lure and dangerous irresponsibility of suppression. What Georges is hiding isn’t worth going into here—see the movie. What’s important is the fact that on a conscious level, he’s not even trying to do it. Caché suggests that willful amnesia is a fine escape hatch for feelings of unpleasantness—unless, of course, something or someone resurfaces to remind you of what you’re trying to forget. The tapes in Caché are precisely that kind of reminder, and while the narrative universe they inhabit is well-stocked with intrigue as in Funny Games and Time of the Wolf, Haneke proves himself a master of appropriating genre tropes even as he works to subvert them—the issue is not so much what the tapes reveal about Georges’s past. It’s what they say about his present state that’s particularly disturbing.

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has suggested that the tapes constitute “ontological evidence,” and it’s an apt observation. Critics who characterize Haneke’s refusal to ever truly clarify who is sending Georges and Anne the tapes (or, even more crucially, why) as churlish (as a colleague of mine did in his Toronto film festival coverage) merely reveal themselves as impressionable. To expect a director whose most consistent preoccupation is the strict impossibility of equitable or poetic retribution is to embark on viewership with eyes wide shut. I invoke Kubrick here because parts of Caché made me think of Eyes Wide Shut: not, obviously, in Haneke’s visual strategies, which are as sparse as Kubrick’s are ornate, but rather for the way it frames its subjects’ thoughtless, manicured complacency as being symptomatic of a larger social problem.

So, with apologies to the excellent writer Tim Kreider—whose
analysis of Eyes Wide Shut is one of the best pieces of film criticism I’ve ever read—let’s introduce some sociology to the equation. Caché can be read profitably as a parable of casual bourgeois cruelty and the toll it exacts on a hapless, innocent Other—as a specific allegory of France’s relationship to Algeria, or of the West’s relationship to the Arab world. There’s definitely something to that reading—it’s how my friend took it—but I think that her major problem with the film, the fact that the Algerian characters seemed totally defined by their victimhood, is not indicative of well-meaning liberal laziness on Haneke’s part. Rather, I think the film has been so meticulously constructed as a study of Georges’s guilt—the “hidden” of the title—that the Algerian characters, interchangeably menacing and helpless, are necessarily filtered through his blinkered worldview. It’s the same reason why Haneke includes an audience-baiting moment where a large black man on a bicycle threatens Georges in the street (shades of Code Unknown’s opening scene, and its bracing political incorrectness). The director isn’t propagating stereotypes—far from it. Instead, he’s demonstrating that they’re implicit in way people (people like us) think, even such cultured, progressive intellectuals as our dubious hero Georges.

Where does our clever, nerve-touching provocateur fit on the political scale? Neither Time of the Wolf nor Caché can be properly characterized as leftist, but I do think they’re palpably humanist. What differentiates them from Code Unknown is the space they allow for the audience. Time of the Wolf is wholly transparent in its operations— like The Piano Teacher, it only exists on one level of narrative diegesis, describing the aftermath of a global apocalypse. The film concludes with a shot taken from the inside of a moving train. Earlier in the film, we watch as a train crammed with survivors hurtles past the stranded protagonists. In this final shot, Haneke implies that we are ourselves fortunate passengers. The question is, will we halt our own inexorable progress long enough to help those left behind?

Caché poses a similarly open-ended question in its own final shot, which is both ambiguous enough that it’s inspired debate—two separate, portly, Chicago-based critics posed different interpretations to me during the Toronto International Film Festival—but also so plangent and direct that it may stand as Haneke’s most communicative moment to date. A busy composition of a high school as classes are letting out, it stands in stark, heartbreaking contrast to the similarly long take that precedes it—the penultimate shot, set in the past, describes abandonment, and then final shot hints, very subtly, at reconciliation.

There is a major narrative event occurring in this shot, but importantly, it’s hidden. Haneke asks us to actively search the frame for meaning, but I think that the very act of looking—of directing our energies towards understanding even when we suspect that definitive answers may not be forthcoming—is what’s most important. Caché finally asks us as moviegoers to pay attention: to reject the false peace that Georges ultimately chooses—his pixilated conscience and its unhealthy habits of illuminating his carefully maintained moral blind spots, kept safely at bay through household narcotics—and to endeavor to see things, past, present or future, clearly and crucially and unblinkingly, for ourselves.