Critics commonly use the terms "disturbing" and "provocative" when discussing the films of Michael Haneke, a 63-year-old Austrian writer/director who divides his time between Paris and Vienna. This latest work, which earned him Best Director honors at Cannes and features a superb cast, certainly warrants the same descriptions. Instead of the erotic perverseness of his "The Piano Teacher," "Cache (Hidden)" offers socio-political provocation from within the structure of a suspense thriller.
Like other Haneke films, it involves a middle-class family under siege. A videotape is left on the porch of Parisians Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche). Its contents: two hours of footage of their apartment, including their comings and goings. The couple wonders if perhaps it's just a prank by one of their 12-year-old son's friends.
However, after more tapes appear, wrapped in ominous drawings of bleeding people and animals, it becomes apparent that Georges is being haunted by an act of childhood cruelty toward an Algerian boy. He won't tell Anne who he thinks their stalker is, however. His weak excuse -- that it's only a hunch -- is hard to fathom for both his wife and the viewer. It was at this point that the film, which had been very engrossing, began to come slightly off track for me.
A subsequent close-up of TV news footage from the Middle East, and mention of the police massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961, make it clear that this concerns more than one man's guilt and silence. In fact, Haneke has said that the story could take place in "any country with stains on the collective memory." However, knowing that Georges' hidden guilt is meant to echo historical ones wasn't enough to make me accept the increasing implausibility of his actions. For example, he never even tries to catch the stealth videotaper in the act. The film would have been stronger had it worked on both levels, and Haneke's commentary deeper and even more provocative had he touched on Arab treatment of Arabs, as well. (Interestingly, Auteuil was born in Algeria.)
Also, Georges' transgression turns out to be less egregious than one might expect. That the adults involved were as much if not more to blame for the outcome makes it hard to view his denial of responsibility as harshly as Haneke perhaps wants us to. And I'm not sure what it means that the Algerian characters appear to be hiding and denying things, too.
"Cache" was filmed in high-definition video so that the viewer wouldn't easily be able to distinguish story action from that of the mysterious tapes -- an effective way to force us to look closely for "reality" in the images we're shown. Haneke keeps the audience guessing about the ending, as well, but provides a "hidden" revelation in the final shot, a long take of steps at a school.
Haneke's next project is about Nazi youth, drawn from his own experience growing up in a country in denial about its past. What he brings out of hiding will no doubt be disturbing and provocative.
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Benichou, Annie Girardot, Lester Makedonsky, Walid Afkir
DIRECTOR: Michael Haneke
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
RATING: R for brief violence
THE LOWDOWN: A family is terrorized by a series of anonymous videotapes that indicate someone is watching them. In French, with subtitles.
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