Cruel and Unusual Punishment
I begin with the straight razor, the razor blade, the keen metal stud, the hacksaw--all the tools that have sliced into human flesh in Michael Haneke's films, advancing his plots while they mirror his style. His images are cold, gleaming and precise; his view of characters, dispassionately cutting. Think of Haneke as a clinician, dedicated to treating society's ills, and his movies will seem like scalpels. Think of him as a less benevolent type, and the films become Austrian chain saws.
It seems that most viewers have seen the scalpel in his widely admired new picture, which for the American market has been helpfully subtitled right in its name, as Caché (Hidden). Like virtually all of Haneke's films, this one scrapes away at the surface of polite European affluence to lay bare the moral rot beneath. Daniel Auteuil stars as Georges, the host of a popular French television show about recently published books; Juliette Binoche plays Anne, his appropriately elegant wife; Lester Makedonsky is their teenage son, Pierrot, whose ways are (of course) impenetrable; and Maurice Bénichou appears in the crucial role of Majid, the figure from a dark past.
The slightly melodramatic note in my summary is intended, as it is in Caché itself. Beginning with the first image--a stationary long shot of a residential street in Paris, held and held until the ordinary, day-lit scene fills with dread--Haneke practices his version of Hitchcockian suspense, and even offers the ploy of a thriller plot. As you soon learn, that opening view of the street is part of a surveillance video of Georges and Anne's home. What snoop made the cassette and then dropped it at their door? Why are they being watched? As the couple, already bickering in their first scene, start to imagine threats and cast about for clues, you are drawn into their sleuthing, even as you realize you're somehow searching for yourself. Georges and Anne are unnerved because they've been seen--and there you sit, hypocrite voyeur, observing them and wondering who has exposed their discord.
A sophisticated gambit, expertly played. Even if you dislike Caché--and I do--it's impossible to deny the formidable intelligence at work in the film. There's a reason Haneke was named best director at Cannes, why Caché got a prominent slot in the most recent New York Film Festival, why at the end of 2005 various critics' groups and the European Film Awards cited Caché as the year's best picture. There's also a reason to resist Caché--but to propose it, I'll need to conduct a quick review of Haneke's career.
He began his work in feature films in 1989 with Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent), an exquisitely, immaculately depressing examination of a middle-class Austrian family that no longer found life worth living. Was the movie a case study, an allegory, a diatribe, a warning? The power of The Seventh Continent lay in its being all of these and none--an effect that Haneke achieved by avoiding any explanations, whether psychological or sociological. He just (just!) showed the surface of things.
His next film, Benny's Video (1992), was even stronger. Once more, the milieu was the Austrian bourgeoisie; once more, the plot hinged on a horrifying, senseless act of violence. Some viewers, rushing to provide an explanation for the crime, decided that Benny's Video was made to decry television's baleful influence over the young. But Haneke's presentation of the story was again so objective, with each detail given such precise and independent weight, that no single reading of the story would do. Did Benny kill because he had too much money, too little love and guidance, too loose a connection to the three-dimensional world, too close a connection to the Nazi past, too conflicted a libido, too evil a soul? Yes.
From these early works, it was clear that Haneke's approach could be compelling; but it also could prove facile, as it did in his third film about the eruption of violence, 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) (1994). The alternative title, Amok, tells all you need to know about the story. A young man goes about his banal life and then goes postal; and this time the audience doesn't wonder why he kills. He slaughters people because Michael Haneke can't figure out what else a fictional character might do.
This incapacity of Haneke's imagination reached a crisis point in Funny Games (1997), which consisted of almost nothing but acts of torture and murder, as visited upon a middle-class family. Most people have found the movie unwatchable; but it's worth noting anyway, as the first film in which Haneke posed the question of the audience's complicity in the acts shown onscreen. As if taking up the simplistic, blame-the-media reading of Benny's Video, Haneke had his bad guys in Funny Games provide one of the staples of movie entertainment--the thrill of bloodshed--and then keep providing it relentlessly, until viewers could be entertained no more.
Of course, Haneke is too smart a man, and too alert a moralist, to have been content for long with this crude method of gagging people on their own appetite for violence. Taking his first major foray out of Austria, into the world of French co-production, he went on to make the thoughtful and challenging Code Unknown (2000): a deliberately disjointed, discontinuous puzzle-picture about an actress (Juliette Binoche) and her photojournalist boyfriend (Thierry Neuvic). By profession, in their separate ways, this couple sold the public an opportunity to sympathize with suffering humanity, as glimpsed in exotic images of war and terror; but when a horror was taking place right where they lived, the actress and photojournalist shut their eyes and ears.