CAIRO: Days following the beginning of last year s Cannes film festival, an enigmatic French thriller stormed into what started as yet another disappointing round, and left both critics and filmgoers in utter awe. The film was Caché, the latest masterwork from Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, which is now being shown in Egypt as the highlight of the current European film caravan.
The film starts with a static establishing shot of a nice building situated in what looks to be a prestigious neighborhood in Paris. Nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen, and the scene remains unbroken for a few minutes more, until we finally hear the voices of a man and a woman who seem as confused as we are. The couple is Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) and the scene turns out to be a part of a video-tape sent to the couple, containing nothing more than mere footage of their townhouse.
Georges and Anne are an archetypical, intellectual upper-middle class Parisian married couple. Georges is a TV host of a popular literary show, while Anne is a book editor. Together they have a 12-year-old dour son, whose initial broodiness seems out of place in the serene, perfect suburban world.
At first, the tape doesn t seem to bother Anne and Georges; they believe it might be a practical joke from one of George s fans. They report the situation to the police, but the latter refuses to take any action until actual harm is done.
Things return back to normal until a second a tape is sent showing the farmhouse where Georges spent his childhood. More tapes, along with obscure, morbid drawings are sent that hint at a certain incident in George s past, an incident that involves the infamous Paris massacre of 1961 and racism against Arabs.
Caché is arguably Michael Haneke s best and most accomplished film to date. Haneke, whose other films include Code Unknown, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, molds his preferred themes of bourgeois complacency, repressed emotions and guilt, and the effect of visual media on our perception, into a perfectly structured puzzle.
Haneke, however, isn t interested in satisfying his audience or presenting a simple story about clear-cut ideas; he wants to provoke his viewers, to make them question their lives and their reality and to move them away from their comfortable state of consistency, which is why the thriller genre was the perfect vehicle to induce such an effect.
The real brilliance of the film though stems from Haneke s personification of his ideas through his characters, and the small details that might not seem so important, but are in fact hugely instrumental in involving the viewers in the story. Georges and Anne, at first, seem to be a perfectly ordinary happy couple; they hold dinner parties regularly, have good friends, are involved in their son s social life and their civilized conduct doesn t suggest they re capable of harming any creature.
However, as the video-tapes continue to bombard the Laurent family, the façade so prominently displayed to their community and themselves starts to shatter. Anne is devastated when her husband ceases to disclose any information about the tapes and their possible link to his past. She is agitated because her husband doesn t trust her enough to tell her about that specific incident, although she never fully condemns Daniel s actions when she learns the whole story. Anne has a certain vision of how her marriage and life should be and all she cares about is sustaining this notion, even if it is built on entirely false foundations.
Daniel is no different than Anne. At a certain point in the film, he tells a particular character that he s ready to kill anybody who might threaten or endanger the safety of his family. Yet, we learn that Daniel is no more than a malevolent, gutless man who s too condescending to admit his past mistakes.
It s hard to sympathize with the two protagonists. However, the more the secrets of Caché unravel, the more we discover that we are just as flawed as the Laurent couple. The French, like many other nations, always regarded themselves to be a righteous, understanding society who embrace different cultures and embody the true spirit of liberty. Nevertheless, as Haneke cunningly points out, they never managed to acknowledge their responsibility for the 1961 massacre until recently (1998), and such a conception is, most probably, nothing more than a myth.
By the end of the film, we are fully caught up in this allegory that the question of whodunit becomes less important, and perhaps a bit trivial. But Haneke does provide some answers within the very last scene of the film, and you have to pay close attention to the screen or you will miss these clues. But those answers don t lead to any kind of a solid resolution. In fact, they open the door for more questions, more theories and more arguments.
I stayed in my seat for a little while after the film ended. Some people applauded, some were gasping and many others were wondering what it all meant. But I wondered if anybody felt like I did, ashamed and at loss. We re no different than the Laurents, or the French in general. We still live in our cocoon with complete apathy toward the world and the horrors that take place every day. It s hard to face one s own reality and even harder to break from our comfortable, controlled life. All we do is pretend that we care, discuss these subjects with some friends or perhaps watch films like Caché.