Our lives project from the stories we tell about ourselves and our worlds, not just to others but to ourselves, as well. We form routines and make assumptions to make our lives flow more efficiently and to give ourselves some inkling of understanding and intuition about our universe, and the foundation for these assumptions and routines are myths about what our world is like and who we are within it. Some of these myths are more dependable than others: something thrown into the air will fall down, a dark and cloudy sky brings rain. Some are less reliable: if I walk under a ladder then bad things will happen, or if I am nice to someone that person will be nice in return. And some are downright dangerous: I drive better when I'm drunk, or Japanese people should never be trusted. The assumptions, prejudices, and routines remove the thought process from our lives, freeing us up so that we can live lives of action rather than constant decision-making.
That's neither an entirely bad nor an entirely good thing. Certainly, it's good for our survival to be able to assume that a barking dog might be dangerous without having to experiment first. Many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities have been missed, I'm sure, by people who pondered first rather than leaping ahead. Too much thought can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, depression, laziness, fear, and second guessing. Too little can lead to tunnel vision, stereotypes, mistakes, and a lack of imagination.
Among other things, Michael Haneke's voyeuristic mystery film Caché (sometimes translated Hidden) is about the power of establishing a fact and moving on. Whether these facts are truthful is irrelevant in a complicated world where truth is a graduated scale rather than an all-or-nothing quality. What is instead important is our ability to accept the truthfulness of a fact and all that it entails--its consequences and correlatives--and continue on with life. An inability to move on is a plague on the mind that prevents further progress by calling into question the truthfulness of everything else we think we know. Truth is a frangible house of cards. When the strength that supports one piece of it dissolves, we realize that the entire structure is built on collapsible prayers.
At the center of Caché is Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), a late middle aged, successful family man and television personality who may or may not have told a couple lies when he was a six-year-old boy. Faced with the possibility that his parents might adopt the orphaned son of two Algerian farmhands, the only child of this wealthy French provincial farm family fabricates two lies about the older usurper. First, he tells his mother than the boy coughs up blood, a rather strange lie suggestive of tuberculosis which, in my opinion, encourages sympathy for the orphan rather than repulsion. When that lie--which perhaps wasn't even a lie, since Georges's adult flashbacks of the incident seem rather realistic--fails, Georges convinces the boy that his parents want him to behead the grumpy family rooster. When the boy obliges, young Georges tells his mother that he maliciously slaughtered the cock in order to terrorize him. The mother takes the bait, and the boy is unwillingly hauled off to an orphanage.
Georges confesses these sins to his wife (Juliette Binoche) late in the film, after much denial and evasion, many nightmares and threats. What, however, is the nature of these sins? Are they really that unforgivable? Georges is six years old, a spoiled only child who quite naturally resists having to share his family and his life with another kid. His behavior is selfish, but it's understandable. It's also something that a little good parenting, communication, and discipline could easily solve. His first lie, like I said, is bizarre--not the sort of lie a child seeking to vilify someone would invent. Was it a lie? Was it something he saw in a bad dream that he somehow thought was the truth at one point? Did he really see the Algerian boy coughing up blood, and did this frighten him? Was his opposition to the Algerian not based in selfishness but in fear? A flashback of the rooster beheading scene--presented as one of Georges's nightmares--presents the possibility that maybe the boy was trying to scare him, yet Georges later confesses that these were his lies. The rooster slaying couldn't have caused too much damage, considering that an old rooster can't be that valuable, that the Algerian would be capable of explaining his side of the story, and that Georges would have to do an impressive bit of acting afraid in order to convince his mother that he was traumatized.
All this, plus consider that Majid, the Algerian, was the truly traumatized boy. At age eight, his parents are murdered by the French police in the 1961 Paris massacre. This is the event that causes the boy to be orphaned. Killing an old rooster, having tuberculosis--are these really crimes unpardonable enough to cause potential adoptive parents to heartlessly abandon a pitiful child to a flawed welfare system? Who is the greater sinner: Georges for accusing the boy, or Georges's parents for condemning him on shallow evidence?
Or is it more likely that when Georges confesses to his frustrated wife, he leaves out crucial information about his indictment of Majid? When he first mentions the childhood event after a long duration of feigned ignorance, he claims to have forgotten all the details. These details emerge only much later, after all threats have been removed and confessing is merely a choice rather than a necessity. Does he confess only to what he is capable of admitting? Are these two lies merely the tip of a vast, hulking iceberg of guilt? Or are these formative lies, which eventually destroyed a man's life, all that is necessary to plague a man's conscience?
Two lives emerge from the slaying of the rooster. Georges continues to be the spoiled only child of a wealthy, white family. He is cared for, well fed, looked after, and educated. He becomes an intellectual. He lands a high profile job as a book critic on public television, a successful, beautiful wife who is a publisher, and a luxuriant apartment in Paris. He barrels through life forming opinions, entertaining friends, and making decisions without doing much thinking. He darts out into the street without looking and is almost hit by a black bicyclist, who he then violently accuses of being an idiot. He passes through life telling unnecessary white lies to his friends and his wife. And when he walks by a man who is standing in plain sight videotaping him--the Algerian he knew decades ago, most likely--he doesn't even notice. He is all action, no thought. He needn't think because he already knows everything.
Majid's life follows a much different course. Hauled off to the orphanage, he must fend for himself, receiving bad food and shoddy living conditions. His education is poor. He has a son, but perhaps his wife leaves him or dies. He lives in a small, cluttered, subsidized apartment in an ugly hall. And regrets about what he could have had, pains about the education and life he almost received, unquenchable anger and nausea at the thought of Georges's misdeeds haunt him for the rest of his life, until the exhausted depression drives him to a bloody suicide.
On a certain broad level, Caché is a film about racism in France and its effects on a certain generation of whites and Algerians who are promised equal lives but receive quite different fates. Featuring the children of Georges and Majid, who cross paths in the film's unusual end scene, the film points to the legacy that the next generation will inherit. On a very specific level, Caché presents itself as a mystery about voyeurism. Though Georges lives in the public spotlight, his life becomes unsettled when he begins receiving extensive videotapes of his front door. The tapes point to the fact that he is being examined, and for the first time they force him to examine himself. This examination unleashes his memory of his long buried sins; a thoughtful pause highlights the crooked card on which his shaking house of cards is built--the fact that his life of privilege that he takes for granted is undeserved. The producer of the videotapes is never revealed, but the most likely culprit is Majid (Maurice Bénichou), who nevertheless denies guilt.
This crux is the thematic center of the film. More important than racism or voyeurism is the question of guilt, an obstacle which prevents us from plowing forward on our sure-headed paths of assumption and routine. Guilt forces us to admit that something in the way we perceive or once perceived the world is wrong. Guilt tells us that we do not always act according to truth. A mysterious childhood event creates one child who cannot stop pondering the numerous possible universes of truth and another who pigheadedly insists upon his way or the highway. When the child who thinks finally acts, the man who acts must finally stop to think.
Michael Haneke's style is a cinema of "insistent questions" and uneasy answers, and perhaps in no other film is this style more fluidly perfected--nor, perhaps, as frustrating. Caché is presented as a mystery, yet it lacks the evidence to firmly support any possible solution. The film achieves the provocation of thought that it sets out to accomplish, but it does so in the most purposely unentertaining of fashions. The acting is solid but unspectacular (Annie Girardot is most interesting in a very brief role as Georges's remorseful-looking old mother, who betrays no word of guilt despite the tears her eyes cannot hold back), and the cinematography is bright and antiseptic. There is no score or soundtrack. Caché is a thoughtful and intriguing film, but not a particularly stirring or enjoyable one.
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou)