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Cruel and Unusual Punishment | The Nation

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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

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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.

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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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.

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.

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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