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.