Fiercely loved and loathed by critics and audiences alike, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke arguably stands as the boldest and most incisive creator of cinema that tackles individual and social pathologies. The White Ribbon offers a visually arresting and sombre examination of the roots of terrorism, using the framework of a pre-WW1 German village under the abusive control of Protestant community pillars. The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf and Benny’s Video all achieved some degree of infamy owing to their grim charting of the insidious effects of sexual repression, societal collapse and media desensitisation respectively and, in what is perhaps Haneke’s most notorious venture, Funny Games destroys the fourth wall in its aggressive confronting of the consumer’s lust for violence. His no-nonsense characterisation, discarding of certain diegetic norms and use of aberrant imagery has alienated vast swathes of moviegoers who see him as nothing more than a smug, self-indulgent sadist, but yours truly is in the camp that considers him one of the most humanistic faces of the seventh art, unflinching in his penchant for asking hard questions about undeniable facets of our nature, which he often does in very hard ways.
My favourite entry from Haneke, 2005’s Cache (‘Hidden’), is a necessarily angry and lateral piece that utilises the traditions of the psychological thriller to illustrate concerns such as race and class privilege, toxic bourgeois indifference and a suppressed collective shame around national atrocities. Sharply divisive as the majority of Haneke’s oeuvre is, it remains an indisputably original and thoroughly disturbing work that is guaranteed to rattle cages for a multitude of reasons.
Georges & Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are an upper-middle-class couple living in a picturesque and affluent Parisian district. Respectively enjoying high-profile careers in a literature-based talking heads show and a publishing company, Georges, Anne and their sullen and distant 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) constitute a relatively stable if somewhat icy household. Georges is testy, academic and self-absorbed, Anne may or may not have a strong attraction to family friend Pierre (Daniel Duval) and Pierrot passive-aggressively communicates his contempt for his parents via silence and absconding from school.
In the opening scene, we observe a lengthy and unwavering shot of the Laurent home that is suddenly adorned with rewind static, revealing that Georges is watching a videotape that he discovered on the doorstep that morning. In the days that follow, Georges finds more unexplained tapes on his property showing footage of his home at various angles and his family in their daily routine, becoming increasingly perturbed as he views one that displays his childhood abode and is supplemented with crude drawings of strange and violent images. Strained by his lack of knowledge as to whether this is a prank played by Pierrot or something far more sinister, Georges does some digging and believes he has found a link in Majid (Maurice Bénichou), a Franco-Algerian man with whom Georges shares a dark history going back to their mutual childhood. As he alienates Anne with poor communication and Pierrot’s teen angst increases in unpredictability, Georges’ paranoia begins to show cracks in his interpersonal veneer, revealing malignant strands of selfishness and apathy that lend themselves to a broader context of examining nightmares that France as a nation has tried to forget.
The focally important element of Cache, and one that has drawn equal measures of admiration and dismissal, is the fact that its designation as a thriller is a mere conduit for character study, both of its central player and the Occidental group mind he represents. Georges presents a facade of the dignified public intellectual who abides the decorum expected of those in his strata but, as more of his personal history is revealed, we are privy to a clear picture of a pathologically narcissistic entity, arbitrarily cruel and defensively cold to the suffering that he causes his fellow human beings. His toxic downplaying of his own misdeeds and raging incredulity serve as an analogous comment on the kind of entitled and bigoted ivory-tower complacency that discards the poor, the foreign and the downtrodden, viewing them as useless miscreants who operate in an ulterior fashion in an attempt to suck the lifeblood out of people who ‘made an effort’. Auteuil’s performance is naturalistic and nuanced, lending a raw authenticity to scenes where Georges runs the emotional gamut in his dilemma, but it is difficult to empathise with him as we receive clarity on just how much of a deeply nasty individual he truly is.
Having the mystery angle serve as a pretext to exploring the way Georges handles his closet skeletons has inevitably peeved viewers looking for less ambiguity, but the film is certainly not bereft of strong hints and red herrings regarding the origin of Georges’ torment. On the contrary, Haneke has skilfully enriched the very concept of ‘mystery’ by imbuing the film with palpable clues that subsequently inspire deeper intrigue and debate. The picture is ultimately about people trying to erase parts of themselves that they have no wish to confront, comparable to the way one might tape over the content of a VHS cassette, and it’s a point that would have been lamentably undermined had Haneke elected to provide easy resolutions.
The troubling themes at play in Cache are fortified by the film’s complete lack of a musical score which, in conjunction with Christian Berger’s satisfyingly crisp and cold cinematography, provides a subtle indictment of passive observance. We clinically observe the quotidian humdrum and navel-gazing quibbling of the Laurents and their peers in expectation of formulaic developments, just as Georges clinically observes the tumult caused by his words and actions. We must be careful not to miss a rightfully damning appraisal of the detachment and injustice that is all too common in the echelons of society where comfort is an axiom, for we become no better than Georges, a man who completely misses the boat to self-knowledge and redemption in favour of protecting his ego, which he does with such callous projection that it’s deeply uncomfortable to witness, as it should be.
With utterly brilliant and committed performances from Auteuil & Binoche (two actors who are virtually incapable of mediocrity), Cache deftly subverts perfunctory genre devices to give us an intelligently austere and plaintive treatise on voyeurism, postcolonial obscurantism and reactionary victim complexes. Haneke has always been a canny master of knowing how to indelibly touch a nerve, and this film is a must-watch testament to that fact.