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Saturday, March 9, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Caché (2005)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche
Country: Austria/France/Germany/Italy

Peace of mind is a fragile thing – it can be shattered in an instant and in such a way that it can never be properly repaired. Michael Haneke’s unsettling drama Caché explores the way that the life of a seemingly ordinary family is disrupted by the arrival of a videotape on their doorstep which reveals that someone has been watching them and that he or she wants them to know that they’re being watched.

The couple in question are Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), who feel violated and powerless as more videos and a few drawings are left for them. Eventually the clues trigger something in Georges’ memory and he believes that he’s figured out who the culprit is, but the invasion of his privacy has made him so protective of what secrets he has left that he doesn’t share his suspicions with Anne – a fact which, once it comes out, introduces a new note of discord into their marriage. They aren’t in this together after all; instead these events have effectively isolated and alienated them from each other.

Caché is about how the seemingly innocuous act of looking can be used as a weapon to produce pure terror. Film is itself an act of voyeurism, of course, though not all films emphasize this fact. Haneke foregrounds this notion, shooting much of the film so that events are seen through the camera of the voyeur. The voyeur is us, the viewer – though we're hardly alone in terms of culpability. Caché is a film that folds in on itself, beginning with Georges and Anne watching the first videotape. The film, in effect, watches itself as it tells the story.

Haneke’s films thrive on the tension of disturbance and suspicion and this one is particularly potent. The fear and paranoia in the film reflect the cultural mood of the time, as technology created an increasing ease of access to our private lives, and the war on terror inspired the expansion of law enforcement powers in direct proportion to the curtailment of civil liberties. There is no escape from that fear and paranoia, either: those who are being watched are unbalanced by that fact, but the watcher is disturbed as well by what is seen. Caché ends on a note that asks more questions than it answers and throws the whole narrative that came before it into question. We come to the ending thinking that we know what just happened, but instead discover that we’ve merely scratched the surface.

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