A house, posed and white in the sun. A car whispers past. The front door of the house opens, a man emerges, crosses the street and walks directly into the frame -- so begins Michael Haneke's Caché (Hidden), the opening shot held a bit too long, tingeing the mundane with menace. Soon the image begins to fast-forward, over a worried conversation. The serene morning scene introduces both the charmed lives of the house's inhabitants and the peculiar, diffuse threat they seem to face. They are under surveillance, and their everyday movements, like the ones that open the film, are captured on videotape and delivered in plastic bags to their doorstep.
Haneke's latest feature is unapologetically creepy, a strange brew of disparate elements -- political treatise, thriller-mystery, audience spanking. The subjects of his film, Georges, (Daniel Auteuil) the host of a popular TV literary roundtable, Anne (Juliette Binoche), who works in publishing, and their precocious son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) live in a tasteful home crammed with books and the other trappings of comfortable upper-class liberals. Georges is familiar … a bit too familiar. He is just the sort to watch finger-wagging French films that will torment him for his bourgeois complacency; in other words, he's much like Caché's audience, and acts as a stand-in for a paddling by proxy.
Haneke's film yanks cagey, rumpled Georges out of Bobo paradise and throws him deep into his own history. It's an unnervingly brilliant take on surveillance: the videotapes don't piece together what will happen, but rather mercilessly lead Georges into his obscured past. The videotaper's camera is hidden in order to reveal what is invisible in its subjects' lives, an awareness of divergent narratives enmeshed in their own. For Georges, that means reckoning with a boy from his childhood, the son of Algerian workers on his parents' farm. The trail of the tapes seems to lead Georges to the now-adult Majid (Maurice Bénichou, in a heartbreaking, beaten-down performance), but the man denies any knowledge of the videos. So who then is the culprit? What is the secret held in anger and desperation between the two men?
Caché has perfect timing, emerging shortly after convulsive riots tore through the impoverished immigrant suburbs of Paris and spread throughout France last year. On a visit to Paris in the last throes of violence, I found the suburb of Saint-Denis, just on the northern outskirts of Paris, was marred with charred sidewalks, heaps of ashes, and twisted debris. Shop windows were spiderwebbed with cracks where rocks had been thrown; riot vans and teams of French police patrolled the streets after dark. The signs of rioting couldn't distract from the unmitigated ugliness of this suburb on the edge of a city renowned for its stage-set beauty, its civilized cafés and squares, and beautifully preserved architecture; Saint-Denis was an exercise in cubist ugliness, with great bleak buildings that housed low-income North African families, the legacies of France's colonial past.
In another suburb to the northeast of Paris, a few curious bystanders wandered into an empty house that had once been home to several families from Mauritania that had been squatting in the abandoned building before they'd been removed by the police. Still remaining in the crumbling building, however, were their graffiti messages of rage and defiance: Voila! said one. Here, you can see how we are treated in France, home of liberty, equality, and brotherhood …
The riots threw France into a fury of self-recrimination and defensiveness over its immigration policies; pundits obsessed about anti-headscarf legislation, assimilationist laws, anti-immigrant sentiment, unemployment, and a stagnant and socially exclusive economic system. In the multicultural neighborhood known as Belleville, thick with hammams and teashops, a bustling halal market stood just next to an upscale store specializing in soaps -- extra-pure, from Marseille -- and exotic herbs. In between the two shops was a Colors of Benetton condom vending machine, pink for strawberry-flavored, green for mint, with the requisite striking models of color showing off their rainbow tolerance. The odd tableau -- butcher shop, condom machine, luxury soap store -- seemed to encompass the uneasy coexistence of France's majority and immigrant populations, each awkwardly trying to balance clean separation with inevitable carnal communion, each held apart by a shrink-wrapped, conformist code that seems to celebrate difference even as it commodifies it.
Caché is preoccupied with the ways members of the liberal intelligentsia float Benettonish ideas about globalization and diversity in dinner parties and book launches and yet recoil from examining how they are already embroiled in what they publicly deplore. Haneke shrinks his political critique into a microcosm, turning up the pressure on one family -- one tiny cell of a nation, of a world order -- and watches it unravel under the strain of secrets held and revealed. In a beautifully calibrated performance, Binoche's Anne begins to fray, digging desperately at an increasingly sullen and evasive Georges; Pierrot becomes wildly angry. Haneke makes his audience just as suspicious through his expert use of the establishing shot, replacing the usual trust viewers have in a director's camera with a gnawing unease … with whose eyes are we watching, exactly?
Perhaps from our own silenced consciences, Haneke seems to suggest in one of his final shots. Using the unmoving below-eye level camera familiar from the videotapes, Haneke shows a traumatic moment from Georges' childhood. Haneke also employs the inverse technique, playing news footage from the war in Iraq in the background, as Anne and Georges claw at each other under the strain of surveillance: Each of us may have our own inner Nassiriyah, our own Algeria, Caché suggests. And the reckoning? It may come from our own inner recollections, from the very inside of us: there is no escape, Caché says, from the hidden legacies of our wrongdoing.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.