Friday, November 25, 2005

Review - Flightplan

Honestly; you wait ages for an airborne Hollywood thriller and then two come along at once. No sooner has Wes Craven’s Red Eye left the runway than the much larger proposition of Flightplan looms into view. Everything about Flightplan is on a much bigger scale than Craven’s nifty effort; it contains a major star in the lead role, the plane involved is the biggest thing in the sky and the film features much more of the action you expect from a mainstream thriller. Unfortunately Flightplan seems burdened by these added features, resulting in a film which is as bloated and cumbersome as its predecessor was nimble and witty. And as the initially intriguing plot unravels before our eyes we come to realise that bigger definitely doesn’t mean better on this occasion.
Flightplan is the English-language debut for German director Robert Schwentke and he opens in portentous style, with the oddly-named Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband. Kyle is boarding this plane with her six year-old daughter Julia to transport her husband’s body back to New York from Germany, where the family have been residing for the last few years. The tone of this opening is resolutely solemn with Foster’s face contorted in grief from the off. However, when Kyle and Julia board the plane Schwentke loses his fondness for slow zooms and arty transitions to slip smoothly into standard Hollywood action mode.

The action occurs because Kyle wakes up from a nap on board to see that Julia’s seat is empty. She searches for her daughter and when she doesn’t turn up anywhere Kyle’s confusion and fear grows until she’s convinced that somebody has snatched her little girl. Kyle has the increasingly annoyed cabin staff search every nook and cranny on the plane (of which there are many), until they discover evidence which indicates that Julia never got on the plane at all. Is Kyle losing her mind? Or can she prove that she’s the victim of a crime or - gasp! - a conspiracy?

Flightplan contains one quite intriguing moment which marks it out as a post-9/11 thriller, when Kyle’s suspicion falls immediately on two Arab passengers who she thinks may be using her to help with their terrorist plot. It’s a single moment of social awareness and potential ambiguity in a film which otherwise has nothing on its mind but Jodie running, Jodie shouting, and Jodie kicking ass.

That’s not so say the film doesn’t have its moments. Schwentke’s handling of the early tension is sound; his camera glides up and down the plane’s many aisles and levels and he smartly develops Kyle’s confusion and anguish as the search for her daughter continues with no success. For her part, Foster is as professional about all this as you might expect and her display gains the viewer’s interest early and maintains it pretty well. Foster’s steely demeanour always runs the risk of her characters appearing too cold, but on this occasion - as with the similar Panic Room - it acts to her benefit as she invests Kyle with a determination and spirit that makes her refusal to take no for an answer plausible and compelling.

For a while, Foster’s committed performance is almost enough to make you take the film’s many absurdities and plot-holes with a pinch of salt, but the point finally comes when any semblance of credibility is jettisoned and the plot spirals into a tailspin which can only end in disaster.

That point occurs with around twenty minutes to go and it’s a twist so ludicrous, so laughable, that it scuppers any goodwill the film has managed to build. Red Eye was similarly afflicted with a number of implausible moments, but it managed to get away with them thanks to the brisk pacing and dry wit which it displayed. Once the reason for Julia’s disappearance is finally revealed the audience’s only response can be “why?”, and we are lurched into a rushed finale which is utterly bemusing. The story simply does not make sense on any level and the climactic revelations only encourage the viewer to look back over the film and spot all the other nonsensical moments which slipped through first time around.

It becomes clear that this is little more than a flimsy skeleton on which to hang a number of chase and fight scenes. Kyle conveniently helped design this enormous aircraft so her knowledge of its layout enables her to lead the crew a merry dance around every shaft, aisle and lift; but while Red Eye took place in an average passenger plane and developed the drama by concentrating on two passengers sitting side by side, Flightplan’s more expansive setting comes off as a rather dull and unimaginative take on the likes of Die Hard (and Foster already has one of those under her belt with Panic Room).

It’s such a shame that Flightplan is so shoddily constructed because there’s some serious potential being wasted here. Sean Bean and Peter Sarsgaard are the captain and air marshal respectively who may or may not be trustworthy (both actors look like they should be playing villains even when they’re not), but their performances are one-note and they sound as bored of the uninspired dialogue as we are. Meanwhile Greta Scacchi has a pointless cameo and Erika Christensen is far too talented an actress to be fobbed of with such a nondescript role as this.

Flightplan so dearly wants to be measured as a modern day Hitchcockian thriller, and The Lady Vanishes is this film’s obvious template, but the staggeringly bad plotting throws away the promise of the decent premise and wastes a typically strong turn by Jodie Foster. I know a film should be measured on its own merits alone, but it is nearly impossible to avoid making comparisons with Red Eye and Flightplan comes off looking worse in every department. Those who have already taken the earlier flight offered by Craven have no reason to endure this one, it’s an uncomfortable long-haul flight which is only ever heading for a crash landing.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Review - Mrs Henderson Presents

When Hitler’s Luftwaffe were raining bombs on London day and night, and hordes of frightened young men were heading out to fight for their country, Mrs Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) knew what people needed - a saucy song and dance show full of show tunes and naked young women. After the death of her husband, wealthy widow Mrs Henderson purchased the dilapidated Windmill Theatre in London’s West End and, in conjunction with experienced theatre manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), defied the moral conventions of the time to produce a revolutionary adult show which ran round the clock and lifted the spirits of many young soldiers before they went to war.

Mrs Henderson’s story is one of determination, eccentricity, stiff upper lips and all the other typically British attributes which films made in these isles love to include. It’s a special story for sure but, despite being bolstered by a whirlwind performance from Judi Dench in the lead role, Stephen Frears’ Mrs Henderson Presents never manages to become special itself; finding itself bogged down by thin characterisation, slack direction and an unhappy attempt to blend typically British saucy humour with the pathos of war.

The film’s ultimately unsatisfying effect is extremely disappointing after things got off to such a promising start. The first half of Mrs Henderson Presents is a sprightly and amusing affair. The action opens with the funeral of Mrs Henderson’s husband in 1937. After the funeral Mrs Henderson takes a boat out into the middle of the lake to shed her tears in private, and then puts on a brave face before facing the friends and acquaintances at his wake. Her closest friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) is intrigued to know how exactly Mrs Henderson plans to fill her time, suggesting that she might find herself a toy boy to fill the hole in her life, but Laura is nothing if not unconventional and her decision to purchase and rejuvenate the Windmill Theatre takes everyone by surprise.

The screenplay by Martin Sherman sets the plot in motion with skill and catches the attention with a healthy dose of wry humour. The film initially focuses on the theatre’s launch and the increasingly fraught relationship between Mrs Henderson and Mr Van Damm; as her feisty, interfering attitude continually tests his patience and undermines his authority. The script is littered with plenty of barbed dialogue and one-liners which are delivered with relish by Dench and Hoskins, and the highly entertaining repartee of this relationship is the motor which successfully drives the film forward for while.

Unfortunately this enjoyable tone can’t last and when World War II is added into the mix it throws the film’s deficiencies into sharp relief. The film attempts to lend some emotional weight to the characters at this point; revealing the death of Mrs Henderson’s son in the first War and linking Van Damm’s Jewish to the Nazi’s rounding up of Dutch Jews, but these elements are introduced with a clunking lack of grace and they stall the momentum which had been established.

Likewise, Frears attempts to wring plenty of pathos from the story of Maureen (Kelly Reilly), a young performer who gets herself involved in a tragic romance with a young soldier; but her character is far too sketchily drawn for this tangent to have any impact. The film fizzles out dramatically halfway through and the screenplay begins running in circles in an attempt to fill time, resulting in the dreadful and farcical sequence in which Mrs Henderson gets herself barred from the theatre and attempts to gain entry in a series of silly disguises - a sequence which marks the film’s nadir.

So thanks heavens for Judi Dench whose performance here is one of her finest. Mrs Henderson is a great character who blows through the movie like a hurricane and Dench is clearly having the time of her life in the role. The film’s witty, Wildean dialogue is perfectly served by her bone-dry delivery and she repeatedly gets big laughs from her perfectly pitched comments. Again, her character is not particularly well developed - there’s a hint of romantic longing for Van Damm which is never explored - but Dench is good enough to make a fully rounded character herself and she’s sorely missed whenever she’s not on screen.

Elsewhere in the cast, Bob Hoskins isn’t ideally suited to the role of Vivian Van Damm but he makes a fair fist of it and has a good chemistry with Dench. There’s a pleasingly droll cameo from Christopher Guest and good support from Thelma Barlow (whoever thought we’d see Coronation Street’s Mavis Riley making jokes about anal sex?).

In addition, the film also features a rather perplexing appearance from Will Young. The pop star is making his acting debut here and he hardly distinguishes himself with the handful of lines he’s given, although he’s much more comfortable when taking part in the musical numbers. All in all, not a debut which will encourage him to give up the day job and the more cynical members of the audience may suspect he was cast purely for the purpose of one joke about his character’s sexuality.

Mrs Henderson Presents ends with a whimper after its sparky opening. Stephen Frears’ direction couldn’t be more anonymous and his bland handling doesn’t ever look likely to lift the film out of the lethargic state it adopts halfway through. The film looks smart, with the hazy cinematography evoking a bygone age, and the CGI-enhanced vision of London is realistic enough, but the glossy exterior can’t hide the fact that this is a painfully limp and inoffensive film which clearly uses up all of its inspiration at a very early stage. Judi Dench almost manages to lift the whole enterprise single-handedly with her smashing display; but it’s a film which needs more than one firecracker performance to salvage it, and for this viewer the curtain couldn’t fall quickly enough on Mrs Henderson Presents.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Review - In Her Shoes

What is it about women and shoes? Why do so many members of the fairer sex have such a fixation on footwear? And why do they own so many pairs which they could never hope to get much wear out of? It’s a peculiarly feminine phenomenon, and In Her Shoes doesn’t make any attempt to answer this particular mystery. Instead, it uses shoes as a common bond between two sisters who only have the size of their feet in common.

“Clothes never look good, food just makes me fatter, shoes always fit” explains Rose (Toni Collette) when defending her propensity for buying shoes she’ll never get around to wearing. Rose is an uptight, workaholic lawyer who spends little time on her appearance and is insecure about her perceived unattractiveness to the opposite sex. Her younger sister Maggie (played by Cameron Diaz in full bimbo mode) is Rose’s polar opposite. She’s a leggy, slutty blonde who still lives at home, has never managed to hold down a job and lives her life through a series of drunken one-night stands.

After her latest binge, Maggie is ejected from the family home and is forced to move in with her sister. Rose grits her teeth and somehow manages to put up with Maggie’s messy, lazy behaviour and her half-hearted attempts at job hunting; but after a selfish and spiteful act breaks her heart, Rose finally sends her sister packing. Away from each other the pair begin to learn lessons about responsibility and making the most of life, and both of them begin to regret parting on such bad terms.

To many viewers this plot synopsis may sound absolutely ghastly, and in the wrong hands In Her Shoes certainly could have been sentimental Hollywood hogwash of the worst kind. Fortunately, this adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s bestseller has fallen into the particularly safe hands of Curtis Hanson.

Hanson’s early films, while always well-crafted and performed with distinction, never gave us a hint that he would be capable of adapting James Ellroy’s mammoth crime novel LA Confidential into one of the best films of the 90’s. Since then he has taken his time over his projects, directing two pictures which seem completely at odds with one another (the rambling comedy
Wonder Boys and the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile), and In Her Shoes marks yet another successful change of pace for Hanson. Under his careful guidance In Her Shoes belies its origins to develop into a warm, smart and insightful treat.

Hanson keeps a firm grip on Susannah Grant’s screenplay; maintaining an understated, consistent tone which is a refreshing change for this kind of film. The characters are all given time to breath thanks to Hanson’s leisurely pacing and he never resorts to grand gestures or lets sentiment overwhelm the film. Instead, we are invited to enjoy a mature, intelligent film which completely focuses its attention on the characters at the heart of the story.

Those characters are particularly well-drawn here and the film also benefits from perfect casting. Toni Collette is reliably fine as Rose, offering a generous and completely convincing performance. Collette’s judgement is invariably sound, she doesn’t ever overplay whether she’s the neurotic lawyer we meet at the start of the film or the much happier and freer person she gradually becomes. As Maggie, Diaz is more than just the sexy sister and her display here is her best and most rounded work since Being John Malkovich. The pair are also believable as sisters, conveying the sibling love and rivalry with sensitivity and skill, and the film’s emotion is mostly derived from this relationship. But the film would still be little more than an above average comedy-drama if Hanson didn’t have his ace up his sleeve.

When Maggie is kicked out by Rose she heads to Miami and tracks down the Grandmother she’s only just discovered she had. Ella lives in a retirement community and is played by the redoubtable Shirley MacLaine, in a role that has Oscar stamped all over it. Maggie intends to play on her Gran’s guilt for missing out on so much of her life and milk her for as much money as she can, but Ella won’t crack; and Maclaine’s dry, sardonic delivery of some choice lines remains a delight. It would have been easy to paint a soft portrait of the retirement community as a place chock full of crotchety residents churning out homespun wisdom, but Hanson won’t patronise them and instead this witty section of the film has a streak of devilment running through it. Besides, you try patronising Shirley MacLaine on this form.

In Her Shoes comes in at 130 minutes and you can feel the wheels churning a little in the final third. Hanson and Grant seem to be endeavouring to tie up every individual story in a nice bow before the curtain falls and some scenes leading up to the climax feel a tad contrived and laboured. Nevertheless, I was willing to forgive it for much by that stage. In Her Shoes doesn’t try to do anything you haven’t seen before but it does it with a wit, understanding and genuine warmth that feels a little special.

Many of the scenes herein are potentially slushy and clichéd, but Hanson’s assured direction makes them feel real and fresh. The ending is a predictably happy affair which may require a hankie or two, but we never feel like we’re being manipulated into shedding a tear. We are moved by In Her Shoes because we’ve come to know these characters and care for them. We’ve seen who they were and we’ve watched them develop into somebody new. We’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Review - The Constant Gardener

Fernando Meirelles made quite an impact with his directorial debut City of God; a technically proficient and visually arresting depiction of life in the slums of Brazil. The film received plaudits from around the globe and secured Meirelles an Oscar nomination for Best Director. However, I felt it was a seriously overrated case of style over substance and, while Meirelles clearly had a strong grasp of filmmaking technique and a keen eye, his flashy pyrotechnics diluted the emotional power of the central story.

For his second film Meirelles has chosen an adaptation of John le Carré’s thriller The Constant Gardener and again his style proves ill-suited to the source material. Many screen versions of le Carré’s work have been rather stuffy and stiff affairs, so the hiring of Meirelles was an interesting choice. It’s the opportunity to lend an outsider’s point of view to the story, and he certainly does give the material a different texture; utilising shaky, handheld cameras and a washed-out palette to instil the film with a sense of urgency and play on the lead character’s paranoia. It’s an approach that sounds fine in principle but proves problematic in practice.

Meirelles and his screenwriter Jeffrey Caine tell parallel stories here. On the one hand The Constant Gardener is a conspiracy thriller concerning the malpractice of major pharmaceutical companies in Africa, while the other half of the film details in flashback the love between uptight British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) and free-spirited activist Tessa (Rachel Weisz). They meet after Justin has just delivered a rather dull speech and Tessa stands up to ask some very angry and pointed questions about Britain’s involvement in Iraq. After everyone has left the hall Justin offers the emotional Tessa some kind words and a drink, and the pair end the day in bed. The film rushes through the unconvincing development of this relationship but Fiennes and Weisz are good enough to sell it and Meirelles fills in many of the gaps during the subsequent flashbacks. Before we know it the pair are married and Tessa asks Justin if she can accompany him on his posting to Africa. He is wary of letting her go anywhere, and rightly so because on an ill-advised trip to a small town she is brutally murdered. Overcome by grief and haunted by suspicions of his wife’s infidelity Justin begins to dig into the details of her life and discovers that she may have been killed for getting a little too close to the truth with her investigations.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal the details of Tessa’s death because it occurs in the first couple of scenes and is the catalyst for Justin’s transformation from passive diplomat to man of action. Meirelles is fortunate to have Ralph Fiennes in the lead as he’s the perfect actor to take the viewer on this character’s journey. At the start of the film Justin is a reserved, taciturn fellow who seems far more comfortable with his many plants than he is in human company; but the love of Tessa liberates something in him and her death galvanises him into doing what should be done regardless of the consequences. Fiennes’ intelligent and sensitive performance keeps the film grounded and makes the various stages of his development plausible. As Tessa, Rachel Weisz is excellent also, despite her character often seeming little more than a mouthpiece for the script’s social concerns.

Those concerns mainly focus on the plight of the African people who are dying of AIDS and TB while the world’s major pharmaceutical companies continue to get richer. The film details a conspiracy in which one company is illegally testing unfinished drugs on poor African villagers with fatal results, but Meirelles fails to make the most of this premise. The Constant Gardener is didactic, preachy and has a serious lack of thrills. Meirelles jumps backwards and forwards around the narrative in telling the two strands of his story but he never finds a comfortable pace for the film and some elements of the plot remain sketchy at best.

The main problem with The Constant Gardener lies with the Brazilian director’s determination to wring as much visual mileage out of the story as possible. In almost every scene the prime motivation seems to be visual impact over narrative coherence; the creative cinematography (colourful and vibrant for Africa, cold and grey for Britain) and probing camera are always looking for some sort of spectacular image, but the meat of the story is often left to trundle along under its own steam without any sort of firm direction behind it. Meirelles stages long conversations in locations as visually impressive as possible, which isn’t such a bad thing but it soon starts to distract the attention from what’s being said in a scene when the director insists on flooding your eyes every few seconds.

Clearly this kind of film is not Meirelles’ forte. The film is uneven and lacks any sort of tension, with an ineffective chase scene thrown in occasionally and a number of repetitive sequences in which an implied threat turns out to be something benign. There are moments when the film appears to be finding its feet but the hyperactive editing continually sets us back at square one, and the film’s increased tendency to grandstand in the latter stages makes the final third something of a slog. I’m sure Meirelles will one day find material which proves a perfect match for his considerable talents. He is a vibrant and interesting filmmaker who needs to start building his films on stronger foundations before making something which really deserves the kind of acclaim his two superficial efforts have received thus far. This film is a contrived and uninvolving thriller which only manages to hold the interest thanks to the sterling efforts of the two leads. It may often look spectacular, but The Constant Gardener never digs below the surface.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Review - The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté)

For years Hollywood producers have been greedily snapping up the rights to foreign films in order to remake them as their own, but The Beat That My Heart Skipped marks one of the very few occasions when a film moves in the opposite direction. The subject under revision here is James Toback’s 1978 debut film Fingers; an edgy, volatile picture which starred Harvey Keitel as a low-level enforcer who is torn between the violent acts his father asks him to perform and the opportunity to use the musical gifts he inherited from his mother in order to make it as a concert pianist.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped sticks pretty closely to this original template, but still manages to be a very different proposition to Fingers. Toback’s film is not a great picture by any means. It is an overwrought and wildly schizophrenic affair which bundles its way through a wayward and occasionally incoherent narrative. The sheer strangeness of the film keeps it fairly compelling, and the young Harvey Keitel provides a typically fiery and intense central performance, but perhaps the fact that the film has been so little-seen since its release has caused it to be claimed as some sort of lost classic when it is nothing of the sort.

Director Jacques Audiard takes a more clear-eyed and controlled approach to the story, smoothing out the rough edges of Fingers and losing much of the craziness inherent in Toback’s original. Instead Audiard tells the story in a more understated and elliptical style, creating an engrossing character study which is tender, passionate and smart.

Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) is a young man who works for his shady property-owning father (the excellent Niels Arestrup), but his duties are generally confined to scaring tenants out of various buildings his father wants to buy at a knockdown price and collecting errant debts by any means necessary. Despite his wired and brooding demeanour Tom actually has a far more sensitive side underneath, and he wants more from life than his father appears set to offer him. Then a chance encounter opens up the possibility of a new future for Tom, as he bumps into the man who managed his late mother during her days as a concert pianist. Mr Fox (Sandy Whitelaw) asks Tom if he still plays and offers him the chance to audition for a place in his prestigious music academy, but Tom’s other commitments threaten to destroy his dreams.

If the best thing about Fingers was Harvey Keitel’s powerful performance, then the main ingredient for the success of The Beat That My Heart Skipped is an indelible turn by Romain Duris as Tom. Duris’ performance is far more tightly controlled than Keitel’s exuberant turn but is equally effective, and it makes Tom a hugely engaging and compelling anti-hero. Duris internalises all of Tom’s anguish and portrays him as a character so tightly-wound he could explode at any moment. The actor often drums the table with his fingers and jiggles his leg while seated as he tries to channel the abundance of anger and nervous energy which is coursing through his body. The opportunity to produce music provides a means of release for Tom; he violently jabs at the keys and lets out a primal howl of despair whenever he hits the wrong note.

Duris never hits a wrong note in this film, giving a display of rage and sensitivity which reminded this viewer not only of the passion the young Keitel brought to his roles but also of early De Niro, particularly his Johnny Boy from Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The fact that Duris’ incendiary display doesn’t look out of place when spoken of in the same breath as these extraordinary performances is testament to its quality.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is around 17 minutes longer than Fingers and by opening the story out and giving it room to breath Audiard and co-screenwriter Tonino Benacquista have developed a much more involving tale with fully-realised characters and a coherent, believable narrative. By cutting out many of the first film’s more ludicrous and unnecessary subplots Audiard can give more time to Tom’s growing involvement in music and his touching relationship with his tutor Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham) a Chinese woman living in Paris who offers to help Tom prepare for his audition. Miao Lin doesn’t speak any French, and has only a few words of English, but as in his previous feature Read My Lips Audiard shows how a mutual respect and affection (if not, on this occasion, love) can overcome any language barrier.

Audiard keeps his hand-held camera tight on the action creating an intense and claustrophobic atmosphere and in conjunction with cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine his restless eye occasionally settles on some beautiful images. He is fast becoming one of the most interesting filmmakers in French cinema and The Beat That My Hearts Skipped marks another significant development for him, providing a much more complete and satisfying film than Read My Lips.

Audiard takes the film off in a different direction for the finale. It’s a brave move, as Toback’s closing shot of Keitel’s haunted visage is arguably the film’s finest moment, but here the decision to end on a more ambiguous (even hopeful) note is a smart one. We leave Tom bloody but unbowed and in the process of reinventing his life. Despite so many of his dreams being shattered his future finally looks bright for the first time in his tumultuous life. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a film which gives us hope that a person can change his life, and as a study of a man torn between the two sides of his character - between art and brutality - it never skips a beat.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Review - Hidden (Caché)

The first image we see in Caché is a house. In a pleasant suburb of Paris, the camera maintains a long take on the outside of one particular house as the opening credits roll. The camera doesn’t move, it simply remains fixed on this image as cars and people pass by; and we wonder what is so special about this home that it should hold the attention for so long. Then the spell is broken, and we realise that what we’re actually seeing is the content of a video tape which has been received by the inhabitants of the house; the whole cassette is filled with nothing but a single take of their home.

Understandably, this leaves Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliet Binoche) bemused and a little unsettled. Why on earth would somebody film the outside of their house and then deliver the tape to them? Is it some kind of threat? or just a foolish prank, perhaps perpetrated by a friend of their 12 year old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky)? The uncertainty and unease caused by this situation soon starts to create friction within the family environment, with George linking the matter back to a long-forgotten event from the past and Anne beginning to despair at her husband’s increasingly secretive behaviour.

Austrian director Michael Haneke, one of the most consistently brilliant and challenging filmmakers of the last two decades, takes this simple premise and builds a nerve-shredding and heavily allegorical film which grabs the viewer’s attention from the opening shot and refuses to relinquish its grip. Haneke plays with the notion of filmmaker as voyeur; he tackles themes such as guilt, fear, trust and responsibility (both collective and personal); he makes numerous references to the US war on terror; and he ties the whole film back to the French treatment of Algerians in the sixties. Not bad for a film which could also be described as Haneke’s most accessible and purely entertaining work to date.

On its most basic level Caché is a peerless psychological thriller. Haneke’s control is simply masterful and he slowly ratchets up the tension with consummate skill, creating a stranglehold atmosphere of dread which grips like a vice. Haneke uses static long takes which help to develop the almost unbearable tension; and he repeatedly blurs the line between the ‘real’ film footage and the images captured by the voyeuristic cameraman, continually disorienting the viewer and forcing us to reassess what we’ve seen, or think we’ve seen, in every scene. This all leads to a moment so unexpected, so violent and so shocking that it resulted in one of the most incredible reactions I’ve ever experienced in a cinema - a collective gasp of disbelief mingled with a few screams of horror. A moment this extraordinary is the spellbinding work of a master filmmaker, and we are mere putty in his hands.

Helping to draw us into the central drama are the uniformly exceptional cast, with special praise reserved for Daniel Auteuil who delivers the finest performance of his career. Georges is a smug, bourgeois TV presenter who refuses to take responsibility for his actions, and Auteuil makes us care deeply for him. His reaction to his growing torment is varied; he explodes with rage, he wallows in self-pity, he breaks down in tears, and the actor’s performance remains bottomless with subtlety throughout. Juliette Binoche is generally excellent in any situation and her display here is perfectly judged, reflecting the character’s anguish and sense of helplessness as her marriage slowly disintegrates around her. Lester Makedonsky is impressive as Pierrot, Annie Girardot has a delightful cameo, and Maurice Bénichou offers a superbly understated display, full of sadness and regret.

There is not a scene wasted in Caché, not a single moment when Haneke is not in full command of his story. The film feeds the audience information in small doses and we attempt to make the pieces fit in the same way the characters do. In the end we sense that the ‘whodunnit’ element of the film is irrelevant to Haneke, and many viewers will feel cheated by the film’s deliberately inconclusive finale, but the director has bigger targets in his sights with Caché. The allegory of the film is plain to see, best encapsulated by George’s threat of “terrorise my family and you’ll get it”, and Haneke also uses the film to challenge the complacent self-satisfaction of the French bourgeoisie and the western world’s refusal to shoulder culpability for their past wrongdoings.

Michael Haneke is a director who has developed and fine-tuned his craft over the past two decades to the point that Caché feels like the purest distillation of his filmmaking style. Haneke closes with a shot which causes the viewer to re-evaluate everything he has just seen, which throws apart all the pieces of the puzzle you thought you had managed to fit together. Caché is a stunningly clinical and intelligent film which commands the utmost attention throughout and will haunt the viewer’s thoughts long after it has finished. It is a masterpiece from one of contemporary cinema’s most important figures which plays on our deepest anxieties with devastating potency. For these reasons and more, it is essential viewing.