The Terror Within

Ways of seeing: Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in 'Caché (Hidden)'

Ways of seeing: Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in 'Caché (Hidden)'

Moviegoers know the drill: First shot is the establishing shot. Where--and, in essence, who--are "we"? The opening image of Caché (Hidden) presents a gated apartment tightly packed onto a European street. Next come voices, an exchange in French:

"Where was it?"

"In a plastic bag on the porch."

Cut to a new shot: A white, middle-aged couple, well-heeled, bursts through the gate; the man crosses the road, glances about in confusion. These must be the people the viewer is expected to observe for the next two hours. The first shot returns--and suddenly fast-forwards, the same man leaving the building in double-time. Okay...this is videotape. But who recorded it? With a shiver, the viewer realizes that she has been looking at the couple through the eyes of an unknown somebody, watching and recording from a (malevolent?) distance. With whom should she identify--the watcher or the watched? What is she, consuming this movie in the dark--watcher or watched?

Caché, which won Michael Haneke a directing prize at Cannes, has been dismissed as a chilly and simplistic political metaphor--a moral "exercise" of a movie. It's true that Haneke has plenty of stilettos up his sleeves, most of them meant for the blissfully unexamined lives of the cosmopolitan Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), a bookish television personality, and his publisher's assistant wife Anne (Juliette Binoche). But Caché feels passionately menacing and discombobulating rather than cold, and this watcher could never figure out where to place the final blame (and for what crime). From that first unsettling moment, it seems the viewer is meant to choose a side--and yet Haneke keeps unloading and loading the scales until, like Georges, I wanted to draw the curtains on any screen and take a nap.

Which is a wonderful irony, because the movie depends, for its spine, on the idea of accountability. As the Laurents and their 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) receive one surveillance video after another, along with some crudely drawn pictures, Georges reluctantly recalls an episode from his childhood involving an Algerian boy, Majid. The incident is so ordinary when finally explained that it seems anticlimactic: The horror is in Georges's continuing refusal to be responsible for the consequences. Yes, Haneke is drawing parallels to the Western world's ordinary, exploitative, and destabilizing relationships with "developing" worlds. To a large extent, the expected audience for this film (European and/or American cultural sophisticates like the Laurents) should feel they are being critically observed. When Georges and Anne unravel in front of a flat-screen TV full of "Third World" brutality, their comfortable distance from real strife is unmistakable.

However, the cause of their unraveling--Pierrot's abrupt disappearance--is undeniably significant as well. What propels Caché past raised-eyebrow mockery is the notion that, damn, it's hard to empathize--to really see past the obsessions and worries of one's small yet resounding life. The flat-out shocking violence in one scene here can be understood as an appropriate revenge on Georges--but at the same time, the act is selfish and shortsighted. The movie exposes all sorts of narcissistic ugliness, whether arising out of desperation or out of the willful denial of such desperation (or out of whatever it is one finds in the bottom-left corner of the eye-opening final image).

As a TV-show host, Georges is used to manipulating his own public image and those of others via the editing process. He's outraged--"terrorism," he labels it--to have this control taken away from him: to become the object of another's cruel cuts, to become anything other than subject/author. (If this is terrorism, then how is Georges not a terrorist as well?) At its most basic level, Caché is a battle over point of view--over whose takes precedence. At its most complex, the film makes double vision (heck, triple or quadruple vision) an actual, tangible experience. Seeing all its splinters of perspective--more important, feeling them, as the actors ensure that one does--is (necessarily) disorienting. For this viewer, it's also quietly exhilarating, and therein hides the movie's most furtive message: hope.