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Cache (Hidden)

Reviewed By PaulBryant
Posted 01/22/06 14:24:02

"Oh, what a tangled web..."
5 stars (Awesome)

As the mysterious first act of Cache unraveled before me, I was convinced it was going to be a perplexing thriller of exceedingly high accord. The film’s long opening shot – which turns out to be a piece of video surveillance – had me immediately drawing allusions to The Conversation. Ensuing ideas about the ethics of constant voyeurism had my brain connecting the dots back to Rear Window and even the stalker lyrics of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Then, as the film progressed, I realized these classic chiller-thrillers were being turned on their heads. Contrary to their formulae of mounting tension, Cache’s quotient of suspense starts high, only to dwindle into a far more profound observation of society.

The society observed is present day France – although significantly, the film was made before the recent unrest in France burst the country into flames, and the story of Cache most definitely takes place before the events of late-2005 occurred – and the particular family observed is the fairly ordinary, white middle-class Laurent family. The patriarch, Georges (Daniel Auteuil), has his own television show where he holds panel discussions about great works of literature (you know you’re in a French film when…), and he can’t fathom why someone has sent him a videotaped recording of the mundane alley in front of his Paris home.

His wife, Anne (the always fascinating and beautiful Juliette Binoche), is a busybody who immediately feels the stress when she and Georges receive the first piece of video surveillance, and grows more and more flustered as new footage arrives. The son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), feels distanced from his workaholic parents – showing that France and the United States could find common ground in sharing American Beauty-like listlessness – and devotes most of his time to “just hanging out.”

There is no real menace about the videotapes – other than some bizarre, childish drawings that accompany them – but the family naturally feels a sense of unease about who the cameraperson might be, and why they are taking the time to record such seemingly innocuous footage. This is the film’s mystery aspect. It’s a mystery I wouldn’t dare discuss further, but which curiously becomes the least interesting thing about the picture.

Where the film gains steam is in its investigation of guilt, and its brilliant depiction of the fear of the unknown. Unknown both in a xenophobic sense – a particular brand of xenophobia which, though I hesitate to elaborate too deeply, is rooted in an event that occured in France on 17 October, 1961, when French police reportedly beat and drowned some 200 Algerian protesters – and also unknown in a epistemological sense, in that what the characters don’t know (or have consciously tried to ignore) is what begins to plague them.

It is very hard to discuss plot developments without unveiling crucial moments of the film’s mystery – moments that ought not be revealed. Needless to say, Georges and his wife search for the identity of whomever is peeping in on their lives, and in the process are horrified by just how easy it was for someone to pop their bubble of bourgeois security. One night their son Pierrot goes missing, and Georges automatically assumes he’s been kidnapped by the real-life phantom from the past whom he believes is responsible for the harassment. His quick-to-mistrust mindset and callous self-absorption makes him completely oblivious to the idea that the simplest explanation for the son’s disappearance is probably the correct one.

The psychological effect of the film is great, buoyed not only by the layers of hidden secrets that obscure the characters true intentions, but in how the film is designed. The enormous bookcases in Georges’ home create a virtual prison via the white spines of a thousand novels, and even young Pierrot’s bedroom is a telling environment. Though in the 21st century French rap is a rather successful phenomenon, Pierrot has poster of American rapper Eminem on his wall. Now that’s not significant in and of itself, except that Eminem is, of course, white. The predominantly black rap scene in his own country isn’t what Pierrot listens to, instead opting for a white American, spouting lyrics that must have little relevance to the situation going on within his own world. This nuance is indicative of the film’s subtle treatment of a quiet, hidden, nonchalant sort of racism.

Director Michael Haneke develops uneasiness further by staging the drama in long – sometimes inordinately long – stationary takes. We constantly question throughout the film whether we’re watching another bit of videotape, or whether we are watching the main story; and on top of that, we wonder how much difference there may be between what we’re watching on the cinema screen and what Georges and Juillete are watching on their television. Flashbacks, dream sequences, surveillance footage, and ordinary conversations are not treated dissimilarly enough for us to immediately distinguish whether we are watching reality, or a representation of reality. We may never be fully sure.

Ultimately the film has a great deal to say about the past – not just France’s and Georges’ past, but of our own individual pasts and shared history. The historically colonial attitudes of France may not be of great concern to Georges, and he may fail to recognize or appreciate the effects of what France’s prior actions as a country have produced (up to, including, and following his certain childhood events during 1961), but his ignorance doesn’t not absolve him from guilt. His high-brow, chin-wagging-on-literary-television lifestyle should present him with the necessary worldview to be able to see the reasons why he’s acquired the lavish privileges he so obstinately takes for granted. But Georges doesn’t ever see beyond books and theories, until someone from the real world forces him to. Indeed, books themselves insulate Georges in his cocoon-like home, sheltering him from the reality of the outside world.

Once something breaks through that cocoon, Georges is naked, lost. He is forced to deal with a situation from his past that arouses fresh feelings of guilt and regret for something he has tried all his life to forget. All of us have such guilty feelings. They may not be as drastic or as harmful as what Georges and his society is responsible for, but we tuck them neatly away just the same. Sometimes it takes only a face or a sudden memory, a smell or an old photograph to stir up a flood of emotion within us that we thought had long ago been sealed tight and put away in some storage compartment of our mind. And sometimes we need those reminders to ground ourselves again. Georges desperately needs his particular reminder, and deserves to have someone remind him – no matter who exactly is responsible for jogging his memory.

In the end, Cache was nothing like I thought it would be. Not really like The Conversation. Not that close to Rear Window – although Thelma Ritter’s little bit of homespun philosophy from the classic Hitchcock film, “what people oughtta do is get outside their own home and look in for a change,” is appropriate. But perhaps that creepy Police tune is its closest parallel. After all, to Georges, what could be scarier than a chorus that keeps repeating “I’ll be watching you, I’ll be watching you, I'll be watching you…”?

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