I can understand why people might not warm to CachÃ© (Hidden) or any of the other films of director Michael Haneke. After all, it’s not easy to embrace an artist who’s so keen on telling you why you’re such a terrible person.
For nearly a decade, the Austrian-born Haneke has been making the kind of movies that make audiences squirm and not just because they’re tightly wound psychodramas with uncomfortable subject matter. In Funny Games, he implicated the voyeuristic audience in a tale of sadistic torture; in Code Unknown, he showed characters unwilling to intervene in moments of violence. Much of Haneke’s work has been a dare to accept moral responsibility'even if accepting that responsibility means getting up and walking out of a theater.
CachÃ© builds on that thematic framework in a masterfully enigmatic story that begins with a simple, apparently innocuous scene: the view of a clearly upscale home from down an alleyway, sustained throughout the opening credits. But there’s actually an undercurrent of menace, as we soon discover that the scene is part of a surveillance videotape dropped on the doorstep of Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche)'the same doorstep seen in the videotape. No note is attached; no specific threat is suggested. Yet tapes continue to show up'soon accompanied by childlike drawings of bloodied figures'and Georges begins to suspect that the anonymous stalker may be connected to events that took place when he was just a child.
Haneke deliberately leaves the specific nature of those events obscure, though he drops plenty of hints'a shot of a young boy, his face bloody; a dreamlike sequence of a chicken being decapitated. Eventually Georges visits a man named Majid (Maurice BÃ©nichou), accusing him of initiating a retaliation for something that happened while Majid was in the care of Georges’ family.
Because American audiences have been conditioned to expect a “gotcha” from such plot set-ups, it would be tempting to approach CachÃ© as a whodunit thriller. Are Majid’s protestations of innocence sincere? Are there other, less-obvious suspects flitting around the periphery of the narrative? Could Georges himself even be responsible for the tapes, his lingering guilt manifesting itself in actions of which his conscious mind is unaware?
If you’re expecting some sort of answer to those questions, you’re bound to feel cheated by Haneke’s approach. Naming the instigator is far less important to him than raising the question of consequences. The intellectual Georges'he hosts a literary chat-show on French television'repeatedly insists that he did nothing to warrant an enemy’s attentions, but it’s clear from his behavior that long-buried feelings are bubbling to the surface. There’s an impossible-to-ignore undercurrent of geopolitics in white European Georges’ clash with the Muslim Majid, but that element isn’t necessary for CachÃ© to work. What Haneke wants is for us to watch Georges twist as he realizes that his long-ago actions still resonate'and by extension, allow us to twist while contemplating what actions of our own might still come back to haunt us.
If you dig film at all, you could groove simply to how utterly in control of his medium Michael Haneke is in CachÃ©. Nowhere is that more clear than in the film’s final two shots, each of which is a masterpiece of composition and multiple interpretations. If you blink, you might miss a crucial encounter that takes place, silently, in the lower left corner of the frame during that final shot. Is it reality, suggesting specific participants in the videotaping plot? Or is it a feverish dream, suggesting that there’s no end to the psychic ripples from one act of cruelty? It’s just like Haneke to craft a film so precisely that we can’t look away for a moment'and just like him to make us feel uncomfortable about what we see.