By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Michael Haneke's films are among world cinema's most difficult and challenging. And yet, against all odds, he not only receives regular distribution in this country, he usually meets with enthusiastic acclaim from mainstream reviewers. Improbably, his unpleasant 2002 film The Piano Teacher even finished off its run as a bona fide box-office hit.
His newest film, Caché (also known as Hidden), received the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as several other American awards, leading to the assumption that a wide variety of reviewers not only liked the film, but also bothered to see it at all.
The Austrian-born Haneke's films usually deal with cultural politics, uncomfortable personal conflicts and the disintegration of family, and he often uses lengthy takes and tricky sound design.
Employed by other filmmakers, these same tactics result in unwatched or undistributed films. Ingmar Bergman's Saraband, Jia Zhang-ke's The World and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady met with a collective bored shrug when released here last summer, and Claire Denis' The Intruder and Hou Hsiao Hsien's glorious Café Lumière never even snagged a distributor.
So what is it about Haneke's films that make them click? To take a wild guess -- and to stereotype American sensibilities -- it must be the coiled violence inherent in every frame.
In one shot, the film's hero steps out into the street and nearly careens into a moving bicycle. Angry, he confronts the rider (a black man) and it feels like a real, human conflict, one based on stubbornness and hubris rather than a sense of heroism and moral correctness. It's tense and unpleasant and leaves us feeling drained rather than elated. (A similar confrontation appears in a subway car in Haneke's Code Unknown.)
Caché begins with one of Haneke's aforementioned static shots. A street scene unfolds for us, steadily, for what seems like several minutes. Barely a human being is present. Sometimes a car rolls by. At some point, the picture bunches up and begins moving quickly; we have been staring at a surveillance video.
But it's not just any surveillance video. It has been recorded and anonymously dropped on the doorstep of local talk show host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a publisher. There's no particular, physical threat, other than the fact that they've been watched while at home and at rest.
The tapes increase in frequency and number. Georges scrutinizes them and -- coupled with a few crude drawings that have accompanied the packages -- decides he knows the perpetrator's identity.
When Georges was little, his parents employed North African immigrants, and they had a son, Majid. We learn that Majid's parents went to Paris on October 17, 1961 and never came back (during that time, anywhere from dozens to hundreds of Algerian demonstrators disappeared, and were presumed to be drowned in the Sienne by police).
Afterward Georges' parents agreed to raise the orphaned Majid, but because of young Georges and his accusing tantrums, Majid was sent away.
Should Georges pay for that childish crime? Maybe not, but maybe we should wonder if he deserves the comfortable, insulated, protected lifestyle he has built for himself while others are left exposed.
Georges visits the grown Majid (Maurice Benichou), now clad in a dingy t-shirt, living in a dingy apartment with a tiny, one-person table. Georges blatantly accuses him of sending the videotapes. Majid denies it, and something in his denial sounds genuine.
In fact, Haneke doesn't particularly care who is sending the videotapes. He's after bigger, more elusive fish. In a later scene, Majid makes a far more powerful statement of violence than any videotape could ever dare to capture.
Caché goes a little further when we meet Georges and Anne's distant, disaffected son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) as well as Majid's son (Walid Afkir). As far as we know the two boys have never met one another, but they could be kindred spirits. The film seems to wonder just how the future will sit in their hands.
The film ends and the credits roll over the static image of a school, at which either or both boys might be enrolled. Several dozen students of all sizes, shapes and colors mingle on the steps. Is this another tape, the answer to everything, or yet another puzzle?