A View to a Kill
By Adam Nayman
Dir. Michael Haneke, France, Sony Pictures Classics
This week, a friend of mine suggested that CachĂ© was Michael Hanekeâ€™s attempt to â€śpay his duesâ€ť to the political left. Sheâ€™s oversimplifying things a bit, but her comments got me thinking: Where, exactly, to slot everybodyâ€™s (ok, not everybodyâ€™s) favorite Austrian provocateur in the movies-as-politics continuum? One critic whom I respect very much likened Code Unknown (which is, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my very favorite films of the last decade) to the handiwork of a misanthropic Zeus, hurtling accusatory thunderbolts without offering any hint as to how change might be properly catalyzed.
I guess heâ€™s right: Code Unknown, for all its formal brilliance, is dire diagnosis without prescription. Of course, thereâ€™s a famous saying: â€śPrescription before diagnosis is malpractice.â€ť That logic seems to be behind Hanekeâ€™s recent shiftâ€”following the taboo-baiting placeholder of The Piano Teacherâ€”toward a fervent (if still thoroughly intellectualized) humanism in Time of the Wolf and CachĂ©. More than Code Unknown and the chilly, condescending anti-thrillers (Bennyâ€™s Video, Funny Games) that preceded it, these films suggest that behind Hanekeâ€™s impeccably icy exteriors lies a hidden and beating heart.
Of course, CachĂ© is hardly warm and fuzzy. It initially scans as a veritable inventory of contempt: for its bourgeois Parisian protagonists, Georges and Anne (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) their name-dropping literati friends, and for Hanekeâ€™s favorite targetâ€”the television set. There are two sequences depicting Georges at workâ€” heâ€™s the well-known host of a weekly arts and culture discussion programâ€”that are simply vicious in their depiction of middlebrow intellectual discourse. But thereâ€™s even more kick in the shots showing Georges and Anne in their well-appointed home, boxed in by the signifiers of their cultural superiority. The composition of the frames is such that their crammed bookshelves and overstocked videotape library seem to be literally pinning them down.
The movies on their shelves, though, are the least of their problems: Itâ€™s the unmarked cassettes being left on their doorstep that are a real cause for concern. The pre-release notes for the film made it sound like an art-house Ringuâ€”scary videotapes portending doom!â€”and sure enough, CachĂ© assumes the guise of a thriller in its early movements. Georges and Anne canâ€™t imagine who would want to take the time to videotape the exterior of their home, or why. The sense of threat is heightened when the tapes start to be accompanied by black-and-white-and-red-all-over drawings of people with bleeding mouths and decapitated chickens. Theyâ€™re both perplexed, but Georgesâ€™s heightened confusionâ€”heâ€™s apoplectic around the eyesâ€”suggests that heâ€™s got an inkling of whatâ€™s going on.
And thus does CachĂ©â€™s major theme emerge: the seductive lure and dangerous irresponsibility of suppression. What Georges is hiding isnâ€™t worth going into hereâ€”see the movie. Whatâ€™s important is the fact that on a conscious level, heâ€™s not even trying to do it. CachĂ© suggests that willful amnesia is a fine escape hatch for feelings of unpleasantnessâ€”unless, of course, something or someone resurfaces to remind you of what youâ€™re trying to forget. The tapes in CachĂ© are precisely that kind of reminder, and while the narrative universe they inhabit is well-stocked with intrigue as in Funny Games and Time of the Wolf, Haneke proves himself a master of appropriating genre tropes even as he works to subvert themâ€”the issue is not so much what the tapes reveal about Georgesâ€™s past. Itâ€™s what they say about his present state thatâ€™s particularly disturbing.
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has suggested that the tapes constitute â€śontological evidence,â€ť and itâ€™s an apt observation. Critics who characterize Hanekeâ€™s refusal to ever truly clarify who is sending Georges and Anne the tapes (or, even more crucially, why) as churlish (as a colleague of mine did in his Toronto film festival coverage) merely reveal themselves as impressionable. To expect a director whose most consistent preoccupation is the strict impossibility of equitable or poetic retribution is to embark on viewership with eyes wide shut. I invoke Kubrick here because parts of CachĂ© made me think of Eyes Wide Shut: not, obviously, in Hanekeâ€™s visual strategies, which are as sparse as Kubrickâ€™s are ornate, but rather for the way it frames its subjectsâ€™ thoughtless, manicured complacency as being symptomatic of a larger social problem.
So, with apologies to the excellent writer Tim Kreiderâ€”whose
analysis of Eyes Wide Shut is one of the best pieces of film criticism Iâ€™ve ever readâ€”letâ€™s introduce some sociology to the equation. CachĂ© can be read profitably as a parable of casual bourgeois cruelty and the toll it exacts on a hapless, innocent Otherâ€”as a specific allegory of Franceâ€™s relationship to Algeria, or of the Westâ€™s relationship to the Arab world. Thereâ€™s definitely something to that readingâ€”itâ€™s how my friend took itâ€”but I think that her major problem with the film, the fact that the Algerian characters seemed totally defined by their victimhood, is not indicative of well-meaning liberal laziness on Hanekeâ€™s part. Rather, I think the film has been so meticulously constructed as a study of Georgesâ€™s guiltâ€”the â€śhiddenâ€ť of the titleâ€”that the Algerian characters, interchangeably menacing and helpless, are necessarily filtered through his blinkered worldview. Itâ€™s the same reason why Haneke includes an audience-baiting moment where a large black man on a bicycle threatens Georges in the street (shades of Code Unknownâ€™s opening scene, and its bracing political incorrectness). The director isnâ€™t propagating stereotypesâ€”far from it. Instead, heâ€™s demonstrating that theyâ€™re implicit in way people (people like us) think, even such cultured, progressive intellectuals as our dubious hero Georges.
Where does our clever, nerve-touching provocateur fit on the political scale? Neither Time of the Wolf nor CachĂ© can be properly characterized as leftist, but I do think theyâ€™re palpably humanist. What differentiates them from Code Unknown is the space they allow for the audience. Time of the Wolf is wholly transparent in its operationsâ€” like The Piano Teacher, it only exists on one level of narrative diegesis, describing the aftermath of a global apocalypse. The film concludes with a shot taken from the inside of a moving train. Earlier in the film, we watch as a train crammed with survivors hurtles past the stranded protagonists. In this final shot, Haneke implies that we are ourselves fortunate passengers. The question is, will we halt our own inexorable progress long enough to help those left behind?
CachĂ© poses a similarly open-ended question in its own final shot, which is both ambiguous enough that itâ€™s inspired debateâ€”two separate, portly, Chicago-based critics posed different interpretations to me during the Toronto International Film Festivalâ€”but also so plangent and direct that it may stand as Hanekeâ€™s most communicative moment to date. A busy composition of a high school as classes are letting out, it stands in stark, heartbreaking contrast to the similarly long take that precedes itâ€”the penultimate shot, set in the past, describes abandonment, and then final shot hints, very subtly, at reconciliation.
There is a major narrative event occurring in this shot, but importantly, itâ€™s hidden. Haneke asks us to actively search the frame for meaning, but I think that the very act of lookingâ€”of directing our energies towards understanding even when we suspect that definitive answers may not be forthcomingâ€”is whatâ€™s most important. CachĂ© finally asks us as moviegoers to pay attention: to reject the false peace that Georges ultimately choosesâ€”his pixilated conscience and its unhealthy habits of illuminating his carefully maintained moral blind spots, kept safely at bay through household narcoticsâ€”and to endeavor to see things, past, present or future, clearly and crucially and unblinkingly, for ourselves.