I’m not really one for Bazin, Truffaut et al’s so-called auteur theory – it’s my opinion that most films are very much collaborative efforts that no one person can take all credit for – but if there’s one director alive who fits it, it’s Michael Haneke. The two films of his that I’ve seen, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) and now Caché, offer director-as-star filmmaking in its purest, most fascinating form. His films are cold, clinical, detached, and disquieting, all in a good way. Like Gaspar Noé, he actively intends to manipulate the audience, but unlike that director he eschews visual trickery. He draws your emotions out slowly, then pulls them wherever he wants, and after the film is over leaves you to wrestle with them on your own.
After Caché, I thought of calling his directorial style ‘minimalist’, but that wouldn’t be true. The camera is often static, and when it moves it’s usually slowly and carefully; the sound design is simply functional, using only incidental sound with no music or effects. However, what happens within the frame is intricately choreographed, particularly in many long-range shots – you get the feeling that every shot (even when it only contains one or two people) has more going on than you could possibly take in, either at a physical or metaphysical level. In other words, it’s the content, not the process of filming it, that provides incredible depth and mindblowing detail. In this respect he is very much an actor’s director, but upon reflection, his restrained, cold technical style is impressive and suits the material well.
And what material. As in La Pianiste, Caché is concerned with real-life situations, scenes that you can easily imagine being played out in the real world. Every person who moves across the screen gives the impression of a life being lived, which is a testament to the actors but also to Haneke’s writing – get your central figures totally believable, and it’s that much easier to trust the rest of the film’s universe. On the face of it, Caché is a standard-issue thriller: the Laurents (father Georges, mother Anne, son Pierrot) receive a series of videotapes which contain footage pertaining to their lives – two hours at a time of the action outside their front door, Georges’ childhood home, a seemingly unfamiliar suburban street corner. They are often accompanied by disturbing, childlike drawings. However, traditional thriller elements rarely surface, and are replaced by an exploration of familial trust, honesty and guilt – the stuff that many of us deal with in our daily lives.
Watching the interactions between husband and wife, father and son, mother and son is as difficult as anything in the film, because they seem real people talking about real problems. I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way: Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, luminaries of French cinema, are near definitive of the profession in their performances, but they are almost upstaged by Lester Makedonsky, who plays their son. If you can understand any French, pay close attention to the way characters speak in this film, especially in the family: words are mumbled and missed in the way that only people very familiar are capable of doing. It is almost voyeuristic, which is no surprise given Haneke’s earlier films. The scenes between Auteuil and Binoche are charged with massive amounts of suppressed resentment, anger, and resignation, and are an education in screen acting. For me, though, the kid Makedonsky’s line delivery and reactions are note-perfect every single time he appears – it’s a remarkable child performance that is so good it deserves academic study.
Back to Haneke. As the film progresses, subtle aesthetic choices are made to mix things up and unsettle. For example, a particularly significant hallway is shot the same way three times, but the fourth time it is shot from the opposite angle. I don’t really know what to say about things like this, other than that they blow my mind when I think about them – how did he come up with such a simple and effective way of chilling me right to my bones? And if you haven’t deduced as much from the censor’s classification, there are disturbing images (one in particular) that are so shocking as to be burned into your memory forever. It’s the familiar images (of which there are many) that haunt the most, though, because of the different action that takes place within them each time we see them.
There’s so much artifice on display here, but so little artificiality. Haneke manipulates, questions and even threatens you, but he does it without striking any jarringly out-of-place notes. Caché will eat at me as my brain remembers and uncovers more, until I see it again, which I undoubtedly will (one viewing is not nearly enough to come to a coherent understanding of a film like this). I suspected beforehand that it might be the best film of the year, and so it was proved. It’s only April, but I’d be surprised if I see anything in cinemas better than this in 2006.