Are You Watching Closely?: Caché

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My mother almost constantly, incessantly voices her dissatisfaction with the state of security in the world. In a world where everyone has a cell phone to track them, there are security cameras on nearly every corner, we are all being watched. Being the young Millennial I am, I shrug it off with apathy, ignoring what I perceive to be over paranoia. But, it’s safe (or unsafe) to say that Big Brother is watching. And what if Big Brother decided to, for one reason or another, send you what he’s seen, as mundane or as revealing as it might be? What if Big Brother were standing just across the street, preying on your life and then taunting you and mocking you in the same breath? Michael Haneke’s slow burning Caché does just that.

Subversion is the best when you do not notice it. Whether it’s Lars von Trier’s criticisms of the United States in Dogville or Steve McQueen putting up who is now the poster boy for fictional sexual addiction on display, subversion is best when the audience is wrapped up in the story and only after realizes that they’ve been undermined as an audience and forced to face the proverbial light of day. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke likes to subvert. Even if you are only distantly familiar with his films, you can tell that he enjoys the socio-political aspect to subverting contemporary audiences expectations from the films they watch. Lars von Trier does it with glee, but Haneke seems far more serious about his agenda. His film Funny Games, which he remade shot for shot for an American audience in 2007, was an exercise in sadism. Shoving the carnage horror audiences love to watch with a terrifying realism in front of our faces was not exactly the most pleasant experience, and nor should it have been. However, the film was so blatant about its agenda, leaving nothing to the imagination and little to read into, it came off as rather pretentious. It seemed less of an examination of why we like these things than just torturing for the fact that we do (Sorry, The Cabin in the Woods did it better). However, later in his career, Haneke, who enjoys experimentation with narrative techniques, decides that sadism doesn’t always have to have the negative connotation. Sometimes, sadism might be a good thing.

A fairly wealthy family is being watched. Videos are being sent to them, and on the tapes is surveillance footage filmed from across the street. They’re coming with violent pictures, almost as if drawn by a child. They don’t know who or why these tapes are being sent to them, never mind why they’re being sent in the first place. But the notion of being watched causes the family’s sense of security to disintegrate. Their lives turn to quiet bedlam.

The film is graced by stellar performances from Daniel Auteuil, as Georges the patriarch and co-host of a popular literary television show, and Juliette Binoche, as Anne a publisher. The two have an interesting dynamic as the film begins. They seem to have a pleasant, trusting relationship when the film begins, or at least what counts for a normal relationship. But even as they receive the first tape, their relationship is tested. Georges begins to think from the logical aspect, and you can almost see his mind buzzing with various theories as to who the mysterious filmmaker could be, where the tape could have been filmed, etc. Anne is less caught up in the very specific details of logistics, and looks at it emotionally, worrying about the state of her family. As the film continues, their relationship continues to strain and be tested, almost as if the two mindsets and ways of thinking must go against one another head to head, both as a way of maintaining an intimate relationship and as a way of problem solving. Binoche does not do “quiet desperation” is a stupid, trite way, nor has she ever. Her desperation has always been evident in her eyes and in her face, and she never second guesses her performance or the audience by pushing it over the edge into a state of fantasy, rather than reality.  I am not familiar with Auteuil or his work, but his various acts of honesty, duplicity, and paranoia resonate as true within the film. He is the typical male who has seemingly lost control of his normal life with this new “thing”. The man who has lost control rebounds against bad decisions and pays the price, slowly losing the dignity he is so desperate to keep.

The film’s cinematography is its most important element. Largely composed of static shots, Haneke has fun presenting both the reality of the Laurents family and the surveillance footage, often within the same scene, even in the same shot. Discerning between surveillance and reality is part of the most intriguing elements of the film, if not the most fascinating part. When the camera is not making more obvious pans and movements, one can safely assume it’s surveillance footage… or is it? The point, it seems, between the inability to really tell from shot to shot of what kind of footage is being shown is to accentuate one of the main theses of the films: we are always being watched. I do not think that Haneke is intentionally being overly paranoid about the subject, but instead being realistic about the world that we live in. It has stunning relevance viewing it almost a decade after its initial release, with the changes in technology. Regardless of whether it’s Big Brother watching or your neighbor, the fact that we live in society where some feel the need to be cautious about everything versus those who live by “YOLO” and carry themselves anywhere and anyway they like. It seems to be more about facing the reality of the world we live in than some sort of propaganda scaring the audience into paranoia. My theory, though, is that the entire film is surveillance. Though there are one or two tracking shot, the stillness of the frames, and the lack of pans could lead one to assume that Haneke’s Caché is an Orwellian masterpiece whose dystopian horror of constant surveillance takes place within reality. (At moments, it seems that even characters that wouldn’t seem to “matter” may be in on it; there’s a blah white man in one scene in a restaurant who looks into the camera.)

Maybe an important aspect of the film is that because the narrative force is looking through the eyes of a voyeur, the audience in turn becomes that violator just as much as whoever is responsible for the threats and the tapes. Much like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, we become the perpetrators by staring closely at each frame and yet convincing ourselves that we haven’t looked into these peoples’ lives close enough. Is this Haneke once again showing us the state of what entertainment has become?

Michael Haneke’s subversion of the deliberate pace and the eye of the camera does not fully wash over you until well after the film is over. It becomes a haunting vision that lives with you and makes you consider every step you take. It should be no surprise that, after September 11 and the subsequent Patriot Act, there would be a certain amount of “precaution” taken, but the Austrian director shows us what can really happen and how one thing can then disrupt the entire life of a family. Caché is a film that is realized meticulously, where you pay vigilant attention to every scene, looking around the frame and studying the mise-en-scene for every moment of the film, only trying to understand more. Made, somewhat ironically, twenty years after George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 is supposed to take place, Haneke presents it as Big Brother realized, threatening and fearful. And when the film is over, and the shock of violence, even violation of the senses has been slowly washed out of your mind, you will ask yourself, “Was I watching closely?”

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5 thoughts on “Are You Watching Closely?: Caché

    Tyler said:
    August 7, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Brilliant post. Another integral theme in the movie you didn’t mention (and I didn’t really pick up on straight away anyway) was the guilt the French are still feeling from the events of their torturous relationship with Algeria. Guilt is a huge theme in the movie, and Daniel Auteuil gives a tremendously powerful performance as a man still suffering deeply from the guilt of an event that plagued his childhood. There are some scenes where his facial expression communicates all we need to know.

    I love your theory that the entire film is surveillance footage. In terms of cinematography, this is definitely Haneke’s ‘stillest’ movie (except for his early films, in some of which the camera never moves ever), and a creepy effect is generated from its stillness.

    I could go on about it for ages. My tenth favourite film of all time for many reasons (and yet bested by Haneke’s Code Unknown, which is my second favourite film of all time).

      rots28 responded:
      August 7, 2012 at 9:27 am

      Thank you very much!

      I actually stayed away from that because I felt like it would have been too much of a spoiler. Also, historically speaking, I’m not as familiar with those themes, so I thought it would be unwise to write about it without any real background knowledge. But you make fantastic points which I definitely agree with.

      The cinematography is brilliant. Despite the stillness, it’s as suspenseful as any fast moving Hitchcock film, if not more so. You wait on the edge for so long, worrying something terrible will happen, which is essentially how the family reacts. On the edge of insanity, huzzah!

      I couldn’t find Code Unkown at my library. But I’ll let you know what I think of The White Ribbon and The Piano Teacher. Probs tomorrow.

    Alex Withrow said:
    August 13, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    Yup, I completely agree with Tyler, this is a fantastic review of a fantastic and ever evolving film. Like all of Haneke’s films, this only gets better with subsequent viewings. In fact, if I keep talking about it here, I’m going to end up watching it tonight.

    Well done, my friend.

      rots28 responded:
      August 14, 2012 at 2:15 am

      Thank you very, very much!

    My 2012 in Film | The Movie Scene said:
    December 31, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    […] Caché (2005) | Directed by Michael Haneke – A […]

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