Twenty favorite films: Watching Caché, again

~~Winter is here, for sure.  Time to watch those favorite movies again, as the long nights spread their white blanket over us all.  And so I begin with one of my very favorites, Peter Haneke’s Caché–an unlikely candidate given its chilling story, its “cold” central character, Georges, and its deliberately confusing perspective.~~

Last night, while our state was in the grip of its first (and very premature) snowstorm, I watched Peter Haneke’s Caché  again, this time on the small screen. I think this was  the third time, and not necessarily–or so I said to myself as I sat down with my cup of tea–to unravel the whodunnit question at the center of this strangely powerful film.  But here I was again, watching, the many meaning of the word thick and heavy as the snow falling outside.

Watching. And contrary to the denial I fabricated as that long opening scene began, I have to admit that I was hoping that perhaps I would stumble upon The Clue of the Knot at the heart of Caché, which has kept bloggers busy all these years, which has made Roger Ebert offer a hint, and so on and so forth.

Well, I did not stumble on anything.  I had Roger Ebert’s hint (nineteenth minute, twentieth second) in mind, and wanted to make an extra effort to look closely at the very crowded and long shot of the final scene, and I did note what Haneke said in the interview with Serge Toubiana. But I wanted to be caught up in the narrative of this psychological thriller, but I also wanted to say, Who cares to know the identity of the sender of the tapes? I was enthralled by the lure of the story but also somewhat skeptical, if not downright rebellious, of its hold over my watching.  If that makes me one of those art house cinema lovers on whom the venom of the world is thrown whenever a complex movie (usually from Europe) graces our screnes, so be it. There’s a huge difference between pretensious and difficult.

As the film began to knit its fabric of lies and threats, bloody dreams and vapid words,  there was no escaping Haneke’s trap. This may be his most conventional film, but its very classical structure of the psychological thriller is also its great weapon, its great agent of reversal. There was no escaping the intentional and wicked ambiguity which permeates the film, the several interpretations that can be patched up from contradictory “evidence.”  For better or for worse, there’s was no escaping from “meaning,” though Haneke himself casts doubt on the whole attempt to find–or design–meaning.  No escaping of any of that in this very humorless, music-less, sparsely cold film most of whose characters you would not want to meet in real life (except for Majid and Pierre, the love-interest of Anne), whose circumstances (being filmed, being stalked, being threatened) are atypical of middle-class, professional couples with a very familiar bratty kid. ( There are other things about this film which strike close to home–the professional drive of Georges, the arranged politeness of Georges and Anne, the atomized world of the big city, the trivial conversations around dinner tables.)

But for all the film’s careful architecture, for all its well mapped-out narrative, for all the control which the characters and Haneke exert on the flow of events, for all the obstacles which Haneke puts in the way of watching, the center of this film (and there is a center) is clear and unambiguous although everything around them may be open to interpretation, layered, fragmented.  None of it may add up to a clear meaning not so much because meaning is subjective but rather because the core of this film is like an earthquake whose aftershocks multiply and deflect and resonate and double up into anything but a relativism and subjectivity.

We may not know who did send the tapes.  That question may be an interesting one to decipher, and the film gives us enough clues to do so, enough rope to hang ourselves with digressions.  But the heart of this film is the chaos roiling beneath the surface of two lives–George’s and Majid’s.  In fact, it is only these two grown men, one and Algerian and the other a Frenchman, who sob uncontrollably, both of them broken and marked for life by the trauma of their common childhood, both of them in the grip of destructive emotions too large to control: Majid’s sorrow and self-annihilation is grounded in one of the most horrific events of the Algerian war of independence.  Majid’s sorrow is George’s guilt and shame; Majid’s very public last gesture is George’s secret. Haneke says that he chose Auteuil for the role because his face carries a secret.  The paradox of that passing statement is as caliberated as it is ferocious.

Some have faulted the film for the “heavy-handed” way in which the North African/Arab presence  is handled, that the newsclip showing the suffering of the Palestinians is forced.  But it is also true that the stranger, the dark-skinned other, when he or she enters the frame, enters our optic, always looks forced, heavy-handed. That’s the nature of the asymmetry, of the underlife coming into emergence, of the hidden surfacing.  That’s inevitable, flawed as it may appear.  What is not awkward or unclear in this film is that in sticking to the psychological thriller genre, Haneke has made a political film, and what is hidden, in the end, is their  common history which can never be hidden or disguised.  In randomness or deliberately, this history sneaks up on the “innocent,” like an ambush in the night.  And Georges’ fatal flaw is that for all his fame, for all the books and videos that grace his walls, he is an arrogant man (arrogant or simply a coward?) who refuses to look at his past, refuses to acknowledge his part in the events that have taken hold of his life.  He is a denier.  But if he were to choose facing his past, is that even an option?  Isn’t the mere idea of “coming clean” absurd, an illusion at best, a complicit act as worst?  For all the psychobabble surrounding us, we know that psychology cannot trump history.

But what about the tapes?  Who sent them?  It is too glib, I think, to say that this question is not important, that the movie’s center is elsewhere.  The question is important to a certain degree, but like other important questions, perhaps there is no answer, or at best there is an imperfect, flawed answer. I have it, but I must test it; I have to watch the darn thing again.

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About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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