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Cruel and Unusual Punishment | The Nation

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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

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By now the political and social implications of Haneke's filmmaking could no longer be elided, as they had been in his earlier work, since his fictional world had grown more expansive. Code Unknown encompassed a polyglot, multiracial, border-crossing cast of characters, some of them affluent, some poor, some working hard and just getting by; and nobody was the clear moral superior of anyone else. Even a righteously indignant young man of African background, who seemed at first to be a voice of conscience, could prove at another moment to be careless and self-indulgent; even the actress, however encased in the privileges of her career, could abruptly become the sympathetic victim of an ugly, biased assault.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Most important of all, Code Unknown explicitly questioned the responsibility of the actress and the journalist for the images they presented to the public. In so doing, the film also implicitly questioned Haneke's moral position. Was he bent solely on exposing unpleasant realities? Or was he, like the audience, hoping to gratify his own appetite for thrills?

These were precisely the questions that Haneke did not ask in making his next picture, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) (2001), which turned out to be his first international hit. Well, you can't argue with success. But since you can object to it sometimes, I will say that this picture, to me, seemed to be little more than an exercise in humiliating Isabelle Huppert. That she cooperated enthusiastically in the abuse excused nothing. Why would Haneke have wanted to make Huppert crawl, grovel, cover herself in filth and pretend to mutilate her flesh? And why should he take this famously beautiful and talented woman and make a spectacle of her character's being too old and undesirable for a young man? Was it because this teacher at a Viennese conservatory represented the dead weight of bourgeois culture? (But she didn't. The scenes of her pedagogy were so absurd, she might have been Professor McGonagall at the Hogwarts School of Ivory-Tickling.) Or was Haneke, as some viewers supposed, casting a searing gaze into one woman's tortured soul? Sheer melodrama, if so--and again, he was the primary torturer.

But he was a torturer who had succeeded in amusing himself while giving the people what they wanted. Now he has managed the trick again, with Caché.

What is it, exactly, that's hidden in this story? Moviegoers who don't want to be tipped off should stop reading now. For everyone else, I will explain that two underlying mysteries come to light in the film. One is an actual state crime of the early 1960s--the murderous suppression of Algerians living in France--which the French would prefer to forget. The other is a private, fictional wrongdoing from the same era, which Georges at age 6 committed against an Algerian boy. Caché links the two into a single chain of social and personal guilt, while suggesting (in the manner of Code Unknown) that people who are concerned about distant crimes should also pay some attention to what's happening at home.

Yet Caché, unfortunately, is not Code Unknown. Despite Haneke's inclusion of significant Algerian characters, he has contracted his social world again, so that you're locked into Georges and Anne's pricey milieu. And they're bad people. Never mind that Georges sinned decisively when he was only 6. We are meant to understand that he was a rotten, greedy little racist then, and he's a rotten, greedy big racist now. The film's Algerians, by contrast, are good people--so good that Majid (stop reading now, if you don't want to know) will actually slit his own throat for Georges. Obliging Arabs! They kill themselves to save white men the trouble.

Haneke the Slasher wields his knife again. The writer-director of Code Unknown would have examined his own impulse to make Majid die. But the current Haneke never posits his complicity in the scene. Only the audience is complicit--and not in any violence against Arabs. We voyeurs, sitting in the safety of our movie theater, participate imaginatively in the torture of Georges and Anne only. No wonder that this exposé disturbs the conscience so little; no wonder that the film's most ardent admirers have turned out to be people of Georges and Anne's own station. Far from being an expression of liberal guilt (the charge against which some commentators have defended the movie), Caché is an appeal to liberal self-regard.

And a fancy one at that. With Auteuil and Binoche as his stars, with the best Parisian living spaces as his settings, Haneke strips away only the most chic trappings of bourgeois respectability. The performances: superb. The cinematography: glistening. The directorial skills: worthy of golden palms.

They should have called it Cachet.

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