Film Reviews

Cache (Hidden) Michael Haneke

Rating - 9/10

A political thriller? A compelling character study? An incisive interrogation of moral cowardice? A sociological portrait of ingrained racism? A lengthy advert for linen wear?

Yes to all of the above. Or least according to the extensive streams of discussion on the Internet Movie Database that this remarkable and chilling film has inspired. Correspondents from all corners of the world have seen fit to engage in serpentine discussions on a range of topics: who is sending the mysterious tapes that so blight the lives of a seemingly happy and successful Parisian middle-class intellectual couple, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche); what is the role of their sulky, adolescent son, Pierrot, played with floppy-haired gruffness by Lester Makendonsky; and what did Georges do to prevent his parents adopting a young Algerian boy, Majid (played as an adult by Maurice Bénichou), some 40 years earlier?

Perhaps the reason that Haneke's film has inspired such ardent debate is that is defies several of the key rules of the conventional thriller, the nearest genre to which one could possibly think of pegging this unclassifiable work: much of the film takes place in silence; much of what we are told is equivocal to say the least; as well as the content of the mysterious video tapes (a cute nod both to McNaughton's Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer), there are several scenes that may be the work of a director, or possibly of a "character"...there are almost no clear solutions. Much of the discussion group chat has been in an attempt to clear up the ambiguities of this film; yet perhaps the key is to read it not as a Hollywood film, in which questions must be answered and ends tied, but instead in the European tradition: the tradition of the thesis play, absurdism, and the theatre of cruelty.

Michael Haneke has already taken on the family in Funny Games, sexual repression in The Piano Teacher, and the apocalypse in The Time of the Wolf. Clearly sensing possible accusations of lack of ambition, his target in Cache (I revert to the original title) is none other than western civilization in its entirety. And very specifically, the French bourgeoisie, who since about 1789 set about founding western civilization as we know it.

The film hinges around a central action: what was it that Georges did to Majid so many years ago that was so terrible? Or more precisely, why is it that Georges might feel guilty about something he may or may not have done as a child. This is where the historical question enters. Georges grew up in a small village, and Algerian farmhands worked his parents' land. During a demonstration in the early years of the Algerian liberation struggle - a particularly bloody struggle, in which the French pioneered many of the counter-insurgency techniques later to become synonymous with Latin American dictatorships - two of these farm hands are killed in Paris. Georges' parents decide to adopt the workers' orphaned son, but eventually renege on the decision, a change of heart willed by their own son.

What then is the importance of such an obscure event in the protagonist's life? After a number of surveillance tapes arrive, each accompanied by a gruesome, childish drawing of bloodletting, Georges decides that his former playmate, attempting blackmail, must be responsible. His increasingly paranoid investigations, however, are both inconclusive and tragic.

And that is that. No solutions. No answers.

Haneke's answerless movie, however, poses a string of important questions, specifically to do with the reaction of Auteuil's character. I have used the word paranoid above; perhaps more specifically I should say that he reacts with a form of passive aggression, the same passive aggression of the coloniser, as described by Aimé Césaire, in his 1955 polemic Discourse on Colonialism. Césaire, a Black intellectual and poet from Martinique, whose work offered an inspiration for anti-establishment French thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, argued that the colonial mentality was one of perpetual crisis. The perceived (often non-existent) threat of vengeance from the colonised against the coloniser - as had occurred against the French in the Haiti - leads to a perpetually nervous, paranoid state of mind, one which is inclined to explosions of unwarranted violence in response to possible attacks. The British repression of the Mau-Mau in Kenya, or the Belgians under Leopold II in the Congo, would be such examples. As Césaire suggests, controversially, there is nothing that the Nazis unleashed on Europe that those states had not already tried out on the dark-skinned peoples of the world in their colonial adventures.

How does this relate more specifically to Haneke's film? Haneke sets Georges' guilty secret precisely at the moment in which the French empire was finally crumbling, yet at the moment in which Algerians, Senegalese and other former colonised nations began to take up their current position in France - French, but also former colonial subjects. French colonialism differed from British, in that it was perfectly possible for a Parisian-educated colonial to become accepted as a Frenchmen, provided the mores and customs of the La France were adopted: that is to say, France was good enough to look through the unfortunate darkness of the person's skin. British racism was always rather more concrete than that of our more intellectual continental cousins. Yet the curious effects engendered by France's colour-blindness have been clearly visible in recent months: the existence of a very large disenfranchised and discriminated proportion of the population who coincidentally happen to of African origin.

Early in the film, Georges has an angry confrontation with a Black man on a bicycle; events in Algeria are mentioned. There is a lingering shot of a Black girl who is a guest at one of their dinner parties: she is laughing nervously, the gullible victim of a shaggy dog story. The implications are subtly but clear: France, like many other nations, has very carefully forgotten its colonial past, forgotten that active racist policies were in practice only last century, forgotten the vast pillage of African nations. Forgotten that the comfortable position of the privileged ruling middle class is one that is based on exclusion, discrimination, and, at heart, violence against the other, and that the perpetual fear of imagined reprisal gnaws the secretly guilty heart of those who live free of such injustice. What is hidden is not simply Georges' guilty secret, but civilisation's - a civilisation that not only exists through the exclusion of perceived barbarism, but that creates, nurtures, and defines that very barbarism: civilisation which would not exist without its significant, (in)visible other.

For the British and US audience there are elements of the film that won't work: the absence of the type of ruling intelligentsia portrayed by Auteuil and friends; the coldness of the relationship between Auteuil and Binoche. But this remains a savage political and philosophical film, worthy of the rivers of ink it has caused to be spilt.