Monday, September 29, 2008

Caché (Michael Haneke 2005)

Caché is a film of surfaces and codes, so much that it’s almost like Haneke was filming the analytic parts of S/Z. It opens with a mystery -- who is sending mysterious tapes -- but ends with this unanswered. Along the way the film seems to be building a network of psychological observation, political commentary and formal innovation but really that’s just more sleight-of-hand.

In fact the very first shot is a cheat. It opens with a street and the outside of an apartment in what seems to be a photo but soon is revealed as a long, unmoving take. When the credits finish it’s revealed that this shot is actually what’s on the first videotape that’s been delivered but the catch is that what we viewers have been seeing is actually a film not video image. There are a few other spots in Caché where a cut to something that’s apparently an image of the film we are watching is then shown to be the videotape that the characters are watching. If Haneke had used actual video images he wouldn’t have been able to get away with this confusion.

But then this type of con is typical of the film, perhaps even referenced (unconsciously?) by the long shaggy-dog story one dinner guest tells. The mystery of the tapes is never solved. There are only two possible suspects, each of whom strongly denies it and neither of whom has any very clear motive. (Other people could have been the source of the tapes but since the cast is limited and the story’s focus narrow it’s unreasonable to go outside what’s plausible in the film.) The possibility of the wife having an affair with her boss is also raised but never resolved. What actually happened in the past is specified but left somewhat ambiguous. The characters are blank and mechanical in what is almost certainly a deliberate strategy of Haneke’s rather than sloppy writing.

This reaches a limit in the way the film presents itself as political. There’s a reference to a police massacre of Algerian protesters (an actual event) but this is pretty much a distraction. Based on everything else that’s presented to the viewer the ethnic identity of Majid or any possible political aspects are completely irrelevant - the actions that set all this in motion came from the jealousy of a very young boy. The results would have been the same if Majid had been a many-generationed Jacques. It’s possible that the quick police response to the believed kidnapping is the result of racism but since everything leading up to that is omitted we can’t make that assumption (and at least as an American viewer even if their reaction seems excessive I also don’t know how the French police actually act). But if Haneke is trying to tie Georges’ feeling of guilt to national feeling about Algiers then he’s being about as cynical as the mainstream films he attacks in interviews.

Caché ends with an ambiguous shot that’s generated much discussion. In a long take similar to the observational tapes we see the two sons unexpectedly and implausibly meet on the steps of the school, talk a bit then part amicably. It’s yet one more element that doesn’t seem like the piece to a puzzle as just something grabbed off the cutting room floor and tacked on for the end credits. Because “what does it mean” might be the point but is also just a waste of time. Any of us can come up with several meanings, none of which get us anywhere.

In fact this final shot is even more ambiguous than that. Look at the final three shots of the film. In the first Georges putters about his room getting ready to sleep and finally getting into bed. Next is an extreme long shot of Majid as a child being taken away to the orphanage. (Since shot one shows Georges closing curtains and darkening a room then we get shot two slightly framed like a proscenium the parallel to a film viewing is obvious even if probably unintended.) Now we’ve seen this angle of shot two before or at least one very close and it was earlier when Georges visited his childhood home. At that time it was very clearly presented as a dream sequence even if one based on what he claimed actually happened in later conversations. So does that mean that shot two at the end is a dream or a memory? It’s notable that we’re not shown who might be viewing this. And if shot two is a dream then what does that make the final, two-sons shot? It makes a kind of sense that Georges would dream about Majid and then about their sons but ultimately this isn’t a resolvable question.

I don’t know if hollow formalism is one of the seven types of ambiguity but in Caché there’s not much else. Funny Games was a giant lie, not just meaningless but actively dishonest, so at least compared to that Caché can be seen as a step forward.