Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Review: Caché (2005)

* * * *

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Daniel Auteil, Juliette Binoche

I think it’s fairly safe to say that writer/director Michael Haneke is uncomfortable when other people are comfortable. I mean, just look at some of the titles on his CV: Funny Games (the original and the American remake), The Piano Teacher, and this film. These are all films designed to challenge and unsettle the audience, films that take a heavy psychological, and sometimes physical, toll on their characters. Caché is a film that looks at the way that two people are changed by the knowledge that they’re being watched and it is utterly fascinating.

The film opens with a shot of a Paris street. The camera remains stationary as people and cars pass by; there’s nothing extraordinary about this scene until we realize that we, and the two protagonists, are watching a video. For Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), this is a very bizarre video indeed, having been left on their doorstep without further explanation. Soon another video arrives, this time with a crude drawing. The voyeur makes no attempt to approach them, but that isn’t the point. The very fact that someone is out there watching them - and wants them to know that they’re being watched - completely destabilizes the way that they’ve been going about their lives. Further, they feel increasingly powerless as they learn that there’s absolutely nothing that police can do about it until the voyeur physically attacks them. The fact that he or she is psychologically attacking them makes no difference.

More tapes are sent along with more drawings and Georges begins thinking of an event far back in his past, which leads him to believe that he may know the identity of the voyeur. The recent invasion of his privacy has made Georges fiercely protective of what secrets he believes he has left and the result is that he tries to keep his suspicion from Anne. When Anne later learns that Georges has been actively keeping pieces of the puzzle from her, it introduces a new form of discord into their marriage: distrust of each other. Simply by watching Georges, the voyeur manages to isolate and alienate him from everyone in his life, effectively dismantling that life.

As played by Auteuil, Georges is a man who at once believes that he has done nothing wrong – though he perhaps doesn’t fully believe that – but increasingly behaves as though he’s guilty as sin, as though he’s been caught red handed at something when in fact he has not. It’s a good performance and you at once find yourself sympathising with him for the strange position he finds himself in, but also frustrated with him because he doesn’t do himself any favours with the way he handles the situation. As for Binoche, she’s wonderful but that should be no surprise. I have never seen her give a performance that was merely adequate; she seems absolutely at home in every character she plays. She doesn’t have as much to do as Auteuil, but Anne perhaps has a secret of her own – an idea the film toys with but leaves mired in ambiguity, just one of several unanswered questions.

Haneke creates a very effective story out of a simple premise, using the seemingly innocuous act of looking to produce pure terror. A fair portion of the film is seen through the camera of the voyeur, who somehow manages to remain unseen even when the positioning of the shot would suggest that he ought to be clearly visible to those nearby. The result of this is that we, the audience, feel like voyeurs ourselves and the film itself occasionally seems to be the voyeur, as though it’s watching itself unfold. It unravels itself slowly, almost clinically, as it moves towards its conclusion, which isn’t really a conclusion at all. The final shot is not unlike the first, although the two observe different locations. It seems as though nothing is happening but pay close attention to the left hand side of the screen, where two characters meet and have a conversation (unheard by the audience), which raises far more questions than it answers. The fact that these two characters know each other at all is intriguing and deeply unsettling, which is of course the point. It isn’t just being watched that can disturb your equilibrium, but watching as well.


Anonymous said...

I love this film, but have a hard time recommending it t friends because of the pacing reasons you discussed. But still, it's one of the most unsettling films I've ever watched. Great review.

Norma Desmond said...

Yeah, I've found that it's kind of a polarizing film as some people watch it and feel that they've just wasted their time because nothing gets resolved.