Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Cachè — Michael Haneke

March 29, 2024

In an interview with Michael Haneke about 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), the final part of the director’s then lesser-known Glaciation Trilogy (1989 – 1994), Cinémathèque française director Serge Toubiana asks him a loaded question about the ontology of cinema: “Film reveals [reality] as much as it conceals [it], no?” Haneke, otherwise, expectedly clear and precise when asked to elaborate upon his austere style and game-like narratives, answers this most diplomatically. “It depends,” he says, amongst many other things, on “narrative structure,” implying that he, like Toubiana, believes in cinema’s ability to reveal reality. But all of Haneke’s elliptical and, at times, impenetrably cryptic ’90s and early-2000s theatrical films suggest otherwise: Benny’s Video (1992) and, in particular, Funny Games (1997), reveal — first playfully, then sadistically — genre cinema’s tendency to conceal reality’s oft-contradictory messiness through falsely cathartic and psychologically oversimplified narratives. Cinema, in this form, acts as a mirror for Haneke: it tricks the viewer into believing it reveals concrete reality when, in fact, it never does; it only conceals and, in doing so, deceives.

But in Caché, Haneke’s first digitally-shot film that explicitly deals with revealing suppressed personal truths, the same rules don’t apply. Its generic surface is still that of a quietly unnerving who-sent-it. But Haneke cares the least about determining the identity of the person (or people) sending anonymous tapes to terrorize Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), the middle-class French couple subject to constant surveillance in the film. Instead, he focuses all his attention on capturing Georges’ increasingly paranoid and defensive reactions to watching the surveillance tapes of his house that come wrapped up in childlike drawings of a boy bleeding blood from his mouth and a chicken bleeding from its neck. Watching them impacts his consciousness, and Haneke uses this tension between digitized image and memory — not film and reality — to gradually reveal Georges’ repressed guilt about his ill treatment of Majid (Maurice Bénichou), an Arab kid whose parents “disappeared” in the Paris Massacre of 1961 during the French-Algerian War.

The film’s infamous two-and-a-half-minute establishing shot of the couple’s apartment sets up the surveillant image as inherently ambiguous — confusing, and clear. Initially, nothing is particularly unclear about Haneke and his regular cinematographer, Christian Berger’s, static wide shot composition of a quiet Parisian Street that’s 90% brick and concrete and 10 %neatly cropped-up nature; no non-diegetic sound or camera movement disrupts the image’s almost documentary-like reality. It’s typical, too, of Haneke: the static long take establishes his film’s setting and rhythm while also slightly unnerving us. But the latter only happens after the opening credits stop appearing on screen. The first 10 seconds pass, and nothing happens. Fine. Another 10 seconds pass, and still nothing happens. Again fine. Then, another 10 seconds, and you start to wonder why exactly we are watching this image? Suddenly, a man’s voice — louder than any of the other diegetic sounds we have heard — says, “Well?” Two seconds later, a woman with a similarly clear voice replies, “Nothing.” This sudden intrusion of unnaturally loud off-screen sound destroys the clarity previously afforded by the seemingly naturalist image. We remain suspended in this limbo for two more cuts and minutes as these voices continue to speak over the silent, surveillant images, not revealing anything. Finally, in a moment that recalls Funny Games’ iconic rewind sequence, Haneke clarifies that the image we are watching is, in fact, surveillance footage that Georges and Anne are watching on their TV screen. While the overall purpose of this opening sequence is to deceive us by asserting that the digitized image is confusingly life-like and artificial, it also, paradoxically, defines it. Georges can and does, in fact, control whatever he chooses to see, skip, and/or stop when he watches these tapes. His pausing, then rewinding, followed by fast forwarding, and finally ejecting of the tape means that the images — much as they distort his (and our) sense of reality ù are still controlled by him. 

But memory is not. Haneke centers much of Caché‘s first half around subtly contrasting surveillance footage — captured in extensive long takes and easily manipulated by remote control — and Georges’ repressed memories — expressed through small bursts of impressionist imagery that, bit by bit, reveal the possible story behind the childlike drawings that accompany the tapes left at Georges and Anne’s doorstep. The first, almost subliminal image appears 13 minutes into the film, after Georges first sees the drawing of a person’s round face with crayon-red-colored blood leaking out of his mouth. It’s an eerie actualization of the drawing, shocking not because of graphic imagery but because of its immediacy and brevity. The second time we see this is seven minutes later, almost out of the blue. It’s not the same static shot of a young boy bleeding that we saw the first time; it’s an even creepier and relatively much longer (about 12 seconds) POV shot of someone moving toward him as we hear him coughing, somewhat struggling for breath.

The third and final time this image reappears, it’s considerably less cryptic but no less disturbing. It only happens after Georges receives a tape different from the ones he previously received: it’s a POV shot of someone driving and parking their car in front of the estate where Georges grew up. He follows that trail, and upon meeting his aging mother, who still lives there, he, for the first time, mentions remembering Majid. He doesn’t say anything about the tapes to her, fearing that she’ll overreact to the connection he’s drawing between them and his “bad memory” of Majid. So, Georges suppresses his memory more; this takes the form of another nightmarish memory that appears unannounced, unusually, set during broad daylight. Furthermore, it functions as a 45-second narrative constructed by intercutting POV shots of the boy cutting the chicken’s head with a small axe and POV shots of a younger Georges watching him do so, looking horrified. After which, the boy, with the chicken’s blood on his face and axe still firmly held in his hand, walks toward Georges, horror-movie-style, promising to chop his head just like he did the chicken’s.

Cachè’s second half reveals that this boy is, in fact, young Majid. The video footage, now increasingly resembling the apparition-like POV shot of Georges’ memory, pushes him out of his sequestered apartment in order to track down older Majid, now living in an apartment building in an impoverished part of Paris unknown to Georges and Anne. This part of the film — involving Georges’ direct interaction with Majid and his hesitant admission to Anne about the lies he told his parents about Majid to get rid of him — is devoid of the tension between memory and digitized reality. For the surveillant camera has already brought the past back to life: by making Georges fess up whatever he has been suppressing, it has materialized memory into a (digital) reality that Georges must now confront. This, however, doesn’t mean that Georges has to do that. He can and does still choose to skip or stop engaging with his guilt, as he does with the video footage several times throughout the film. He refuses to take responsibility for his lies’ impact on Majid’s life by handpicking blocks of (materialized) memory that excuse him for his behavior. In doing so, he, despite admitting his guilt to Anne, continues to play the game of denial in front of Majid. 

In the film’s penultimate shot, however, Haneke — sadist, moralist; attach whatever other label you want to attach to him — denies Georges the opportunity to deny his culpability. After seeing Majid commit suicide in front of him (in a sequence that remains deeply upsetting and shocking) and subsequently having a verbal altercation with his now-orphaned son, who blames his father’s “murder on Georges’ conscience,” Georges returns back to the sanctuary of his home, believing that the worst is over. He takes medicine for his headache, closes all the blinds in his rooms, and tucks inside his bed to sleep. The next cut, however, cuts right through his performative surface; it takes us back to his memories, which hadn’t surfaced since he made direct contact with Majid. Now, however, it’s not fragmentary or spontaneous in the way it was before, nor is it brief; it’s a three-minute-long static shot of the estate’s courtyard, almost exactly resembling the opening shot composition of Georges’ Parisian house. This shot also captures life unfolding on the screen — entirely undisturbed by filmic disturbances. In doing so, it bears witness to the moment French authorities took the young, heartbroken Majid away from the estate after Georges convinced his parents to do so. It’s a moment of absolute clarity, revealed to us and Georges by freezing it forever into his conscience as a videotape on repeat, but without a way to pause, skip, fast-forward, or stop.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon