Cool and simple but resonating invisibly out into our lives like an X-ray, Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden) is a mystery wrapped in a tangle of sightlines—you are rarely confident about what you’re watching, and never sure that watching will be enough. Movies may be the act of seeing, but Haneke knows that doesn’t necessarily entail perception, or understanding. In fact, Caché is a leveling necropsy on the limits of witness, and the fallout is terrifying—not because of what the film shows you but due to the poisoning unease of our own inadequacies. This unique crucible begins in the very first shot: a nondescript view from a side street of a gated townhouse entrance, thick with parked cars and passersby. Haneke holds it for minutes, and eventually we hear a couple talking elliptically to each other, but we do not see them. Then the image begins to rewind: We’ve been watching a video with the couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), who are as lost as we are. On the tape, Auteuil’s Georges walks from his front door and virtually strides by the “camera”; in “real life,” Georges steps outside to the street, trying to suss out how he could’ve not seen the footage being shot.
The premise is easily recognizable as the initial MacGuffin in David Lynch’s Lost Highway: a marriage being “invaded” by videotapes whose origins are certainly violative and potentially metaphysical. But Lynch never implicated the viewer; Haneke kicks off his dissertation by usurping our presumption of omnipotence. Immediately, every minute of Caché is untrustworthy, and we never know, literally, if any given shot is “live” or if it’s Memorex. Of course, the difference grows moot as Caché progresses; Haneke returns to that street shot, daring us to define the image two ways at once. New milieus are similarly introduced with still, stagnant establishing shots that create a ferociously new tone of guilt-menace. Suddenly, we’re Rear Window‘s L.B. Jefferies, and Haneke’s characters are the hapless Lars Thorwalds.
That switchback is apt; the process of paranoia begins to unravel Anne and Georges’s family (their 12-year-old son Pierrot, played by Lester Makedonsky, instills his own kind of upset into the mix) and to reveal sins of the past. The meta-stalking also involves savage kindergarten drawings of a bloodied child, arriving in the mail and otherwise. A tape “delivered” during a smug dinner party leaves the side street and instead, through a rainy windshield, brings us all to the country house Georges grew up in. Flashes of the bloodied boy, of Arab descent, haunt Georges’s dreams (or so he says; we see them simply as jump-cutaways). Lying to Anne, Georges follows up the clues, locating the grown Algerian and falling ever deeper into a dry well of unlocatable answers and nauseous anxieties made inexplicably flesh.
Haneke is not our only hardcore existentialist, but he might be the most pure-minded. Caché (“hidden,” Georges says, about everything) has a Mandelbrot set’s molecular uniformity: The gout of details reflects the film’s larger shape, down to an elaborate mealtime joke, the unhelpful conversation Georges has with his invalid mother (Annie Girardot), and Pierrot’s offscreen transformation into a secretive, uncommunicative punk—or was he always that way? (Anne and Georges, or Euro-variations on them, are the names of the hetero pairs in four other Haneke films, as if each were a prism-angle on the same transgressive-voyeurism tale.) Eventually, the movie’s devilish structure—every cut is an occasion for what-is-it- now
heebie-jeebies—predicates how we react to the story, particularly once the middle-aged Algerian (Haneke vet Maurice Bénichou) faces up to his unspeakable unknown, and we’re as hyperaware as Georges that the entire scene could have been secretly taped.
The form of this unholy experience is so sublimely conceived that Haneke can rope in post-colonialist atrocity (specifically, the Paris drowning-massacre of protesting Algerians in 1961) and contemporary injustices (ever-present on Anne and Georges’s plasma TV), and make it all seem of a piece with the central issues of seeing-but-not-seeing, of bobo complacence in fragile balance with Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth.” Binoche and Auteuil are both quietly sensational in their fracturing personae, but the film is Haneke’s premier postmodern assault—less visceral, perhaps, than Code Unknown and the criminally underappreciated Time of the Wolf, but more thoughtful and, in the end, deeper in the afterplay. Just when you think Haneke will slip away under the cloak of total obfuscation, he hits us with a long, final mega-shot, of a school releasing its students. If you watch closely, something casual but implicitly horrible happens, offering up a tantalizing hint that only opens darker, more cluttered closets.