Haneke is the most rigorous and demanding of talents. His forte is the long hard stare, and in Caché it’s Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) who is on the receiving end. The film opens with a long shot of an apartment in Paris, shot from a little side street across the way. It seems a perfectly banal, neutral establishing shot, except that Haneke doesn’t cut, he holds it for several minutes, until it emerges we’re watching a film within the film, videotaped surveillance footage of Laurent’s home which has been posted anonymously through his letterbox.
There is nothing incriminating in the video. Nothing untoward. Georges and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) are bewildered. Who would do such a thing – and why? Can it be a joke?
When another tape arrives – as neutral and banal as the first – they begin to get upset. Someone is watching them. Some sort of threat seems to be implied. Could it be blackmail? They go to the police, but no crime has been committed and no help is forthcoming.
And then there is a drawing: a childish scribble of a boy with an axe and a bloody red rooster. He won’t admit it, but something in this sketch sounds alarm bells in Georges. It sets him on a course that unravels not the mystery, but his marriage, his reputation, and his self-respect.
What’s hidden in Caché is simple enough; it’s what’s usually hidden: shame. Without giving anything away, we can say that the cause of Laurent’s shame can be interpreted in political as well as psychological terms – but in a sense it’s also beside the point. What’s really interesting is how this sophisticated, mature, civilized, white man reacts when confronted with his own feelings of guilt and inadequacy: he betrays the trust of his wife, lies to just about everyone in fact, and kicks out with racist aggravation.
Does he deserve to be pulled through the ringer like this? Is it fair? Well, we may sympathise with Georges – who probably resembles the target audience for a European art film such as this – but the movie thoroughly undermines any assumption that life is fair.
Different viewers will see different things in this film: it’s part of Haneke’s point that seeing is not the same as understanding. Some will be infuriated by an ending that only opens up more troubling questions than the narrative can possibly answer. But almost everyone will be shocked and troubled by this provocative, suspenseful drama from a modern master of the form.
Watching Tip: If you like Caché, try David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which begins with a similar disquieting idea and takes it somewhere else entirely. Surveillance paranoia also inspires Francis Coppola’s The Conversation and Nicolas Refn’s Fear X.