Caché, the fascinating, frustrating existential thriller by Austrian director Michael Haneke, opens with a stationary shot of a nondescript townhouse in Paris. The movie titles, in small white type, slowly appear against this backdrop as if printing on a teletype machine. The only sounds are the occasional bird chirp and the momentary footsteps of a passerby. After about two minutes, the completed titles fade from view. A woman comes out of the townhouse but the camera, rooted as an obstinate child, does not follow her as she exits the frame. More time passes until, just as the film is beginning to seem a Warholian exercise in cinematic stasis, a man and a woman speak: "Where was it?" he asks (in subtitled French). "In a plastic bag on the porch," she replies. The couple are Georges and Anne Laurent, and they are watching a videotape--the same videotape we have been watching, the patient contemplation of an ordinary Parisian house. For them, however, the sensation of voyeurism is redoubled, because this ordinary house is their house: Someone unknown has been spying on them and has given them the tape to let them know it.
It's a magnificent opening, creepy and multilayered. We are watching the house, and Georges and Anne are watching it with us, but what we are all in fact watching is them being watched. Afterward, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) goes outside to examine the alley (tellingly named the rue des Iris) from which the video was apparently shot. But he finds nothing. Nor can he and Anne (Juliette Binoche) imagine how they could have been filmed at such length without observing their observer. Over the next several days they receive further videotapes, accompanied by drawings of a childish stick figure with a garish streak of red--blood? fire?--gushing from the mouth. Who could be sending them? A deranged fan of the prestigious literary talk show that Georges hosts on television, perhaps? The police are no help; until a crime is committed or explicit threat made they will not intervene. It is not until Georges and Anne receive another video, this time of the house that Georges grew up in, that he begins to imagine this might be connected to his childhood, and a young Algerian farmhand who worked for his parents ...
Caché, released on DVD today, has all the makings of a superb existential thriller. Unfortunately, Haneke has set loftier goals for himself, and what began as a lithe, cunning mystery gradually expands into a broad political allegory about Western guilt and a meditation on the nature of seeing. The farmhand from Georges's youth, Majid, lost his parents in a massacre of Algerian protestors by the Paris police in 1961; but George, too, had done the boy ill, and like France itself--which has only grudgingly avowed the 1961 atrocity--he refuses to accept responsibility. Convinced that Majid must be the one sending the videotapes to his family, Georges goes to see him. But rather than the bitter aggressor he anticipates, he finds a quiet older man (Maurice Bénichou), kind but defeated, who denies having anything to do with the tapes.
This is hardly the only mystery the film offers, however. Befitting its title, which means "hidden" in English, Caché is strewn with subtle clues and suggestive correlations. Is Anne having an affair with a close family friend? Did Georges and Majid have a homosexual relationship as boys? Is Georges and Anne's preteen son Pierrot having one now? Note the way the Laurents' dining room wall is lined with books, a nearly perfect echo of the set of Georges's television show, ensuring that at home as well as work he is always the "host"'; or notice how, after Georges steps away from a dinner party to answer the door, he returns to find Anne bending over her perhaps-paramour to serve his food. Even a momentary glimpse, in a car's headlights, of the shadow of a film camera--Haneke's camera--seems not an ordinary technical goof, but a meticulously placed artifact, one whose implications we are expected to ponder.