Hidden Meaning

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BOOKS AND ARTS JUNE 27, 2006

Hidden Meaning

Caché, the fascinating, frustrating existential thriller by Austrian director Michael Haneke, opens with a stationary shot of a nondescript townhouse in Paris. The movie titles, in small white type, slowly appear against this backdrop as if printing on a teletype machine. The only sounds are the occasional bird chirp and the momentary footsteps of a passerby. After about two minutes, the completed titles fade from view. A woman comes out of the townhouse but the camera, rooted as an obstinate child, does not follow her as she exits the frame. More time passes until, just as the film is beginning to seem a Warholian exercise in cinematic stasis, a man and a woman speak: "Where was it?" he asks (in subtitled French). "In a plastic bag on the porch," she replies. The couple are Georges and Anne Laurent, and they are watching a videotape--the same videotape we have been watching, the patient contemplation of an ordinary Parisian house. For them, however, the sensation of voyeurism is redoubled, because this ordinary house is their house: Someone unknown has been spying on them and has given them the tape to let them know it.

It's a magnificent opening, creepy and multilayered. We are watching the house, and Georges and Anne are watching it with us, but what we are all in fact watching is them being watched. Afterward, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) goes outside to examine the alley (tellingly named the rue des Iris) from which the video was apparently shot. But he finds nothing. Nor can he and Anne (Juliette Binoche) imagine how they could have been filmed at such length without observing their observer. Over the next several days they receive further videotapes, accompanied by drawings of a childish stick figure with a garish streak of red--blood? fire?--gushing from the mouth. Who could be sending them? A deranged fan of the prestigious literary talk show that Georges hosts on television, perhaps? The police are no help; until a crime is committed or explicit threat made they will not intervene. It is not until Georges and Anne receive another video, this time of the house that Georges grew up in, that he begins to imagine this might be connected to his childhood, and a young Algerian farmhand who worked for his parents ...

Caché, released on DVD today, has all the makings of a superb existential thriller. Unfortunately, Haneke has set loftier goals for himself, and what began as a lithe, cunning mystery gradually expands into a broad political allegory about Western guilt and a meditation on the nature of seeing. The farmhand from Georges's youth, Majid, lost his parents in a massacre of Algerian protestors by the Paris police in 1961; but George, too, had done the boy ill, and like France itself--which has only grudgingly avowed the 1961 atrocity--he refuses to accept responsibility. Convinced that Majid must be the one sending the videotapes to his family, Georges goes to see him. But rather than the angry aggressor he anticipates, he finds a quiet older man (Maurice Bénichou), kind but defeated, who denies having anything to do with the tapes.

This is hardly the only mystery the film offers, however. Befitting its title, which means "hidden" in English, Caché is strewn with subtle clues and suggestive correlations. Is Anne having an affair with a close family friend? Did Georges and Majid have a homosexual relationship as boys? Is Georges and Anne's preteen son Pierrot having one now? Note the way the Laurents' dining room wall is lined with books, a nearly perfect echo of the set of Georges's television show, ensuring that at home as well as work he is always the "host"'; or notice how, after Georges steps away from a dinner party to answer the door, he returns to find Anne bending over her perhaps-paramour to serve his food. Even a momentary glimpse, in a car's headlights, of the shadow of a film camera--Haneke's camera--seems not an ordinary technical goof, but a meticulously placed artifact, one whose implications we are expected to ponder.

Gradually, Haneke's subsidiary intrigues and provocations push the central mystery to the margins. Georges and Anne receive subsequent tapes, including one of Georges's conversation with Majid, but the film begins to lose interest in their source. Possible culprits are offered--most specifically in the film's ambiguous final shot--but none are made explicit and all include apparent contradictions. There are even oblique suggestions (the camera-shadow among them) that the tapes represent a kind of omniscient, disinterested truth, sent from outside the film by the director himself.

Haneke is famous for subverting the expectations of his audiences, for demanding that we pay attention and, in collaboration with him, create a film experience. But at some point his expectation that viewers do more work in effect becomes an excuse for him to do less. There are many compelling questions in Caché, but few satisfying answers. The film's craftsmanship is undeniable, yet there is a intentionally unfinished feel to it, a refusal to select one path and foreclose others.

This elusiveness is part of Caché's mysterious appeal, but ultimately it is also its greatest disappointment. Whereas a film like Rear Window--to which Caché has been widely compared--works on multiple levels (narrative, allegorical, philosophical) simultaneously, Caché glides from one to another such that, rather than reinforce each other, they work at cross purposes. There is a shocking, unexpected act of violence three-quarters of the way through the film, but while it is central to the political theme Haneke is cultivating, it makes very little narrative or psychological sense. (And even as political allegory, it's simultaneously heavy handed and a bit opaque.) Conversely, as Haneke expands the scope of his inquiries, the enigma that so chillingly launched the film recedes almost entirely from view.

In the end, Caché is not a thriller in which deeper meanings are embedded, but a thriller that retreats into deeper meanings. It poses the question "Who sent the tapes?" but answers, "Who cares? Don't you understand our collective guilt for third-world suffering? And besides, who knows what truth is, anyway?" Touché, Caché.

The Home Movie List: Puzzles with solutions

Rear Window (1954). If you want, you can read the film as a metaphor for repressed homosexual desire, with Jeff's phallic lens pointed obsessively at Thorwald's shirtless body. Or, like a film teacher I had in college, you can argue that the hat box contains "Anna Thorwald's penis." (Yeah, me neither.) But whatever subtext you prefer, Hitchcock was not above providing answers for those interested in reading the film more literally.The Usual Suspects (1995). A movie whose solution is in fact its negation. By putting the entire story into the mouth of a liar, rather than just a few specific elements (e.g., those related to the identity of Keyser Soze), the movie renders itself unknowable to a greater degree than even it seems to realize. Memento (2000). A gimmick film that succeeds almost too well for its own good. The plot is so ingenious and execution so dexterous that it's hard to appreciate the tragic contours of the film. Leonard Shelby's quest for absolution is both long finished and never-ending, a bid for closure that his open-ended mind will never accept. Donnie Darko (2001). A puzzle that was much better left unsolved. The theatrical release was tauntingly ambiguous: Was Donnie dreaming? Traveling through time? Or merely going nuts? But last year writer/director Richard Kelly released a "director's cut" whose larded explanations smothered the film's original magic. Next time, just leave us in the dark. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Not really a puzzle movie at all, but rather an exploration of romantic idealism and reality told in the form of a riddle. Also, incidentally, one of the best films of the decade.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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