Welcome to the All-Time Favourites Series. This series examines 25 of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, looking at them in depth with analyses of what makes them great, and cutting down to the most basic level, looking at plot, cinematography, writing, direction, acting and other things, to see what makes these great films tick. For more on the series, click here. This week’s film is Michael Haneke’s 2005 masterpiece, Cachè, a success at Cannes and one of Haneke’s particularly well-received works.
A street in a bourgeois suburb of Paris, viewed from an alleyway. The view is still, unblinking and unmoving, like a portrait. A cyclist whirrs past, breathing life into the image. What was a static picture, devoid of life, is so suddenly thrust into the dimension of real life, that we barely have time to register this sudden change, image being born into video. Before any characters have even been seen and the camera has even cut away from its opening shot, Cachè has set a tone, and startled the audience with one of its many clever mind-games. It is an incredibly smart film, smarter than it appears to look at first, with an incredible ability of deceiving the audience and provoking thought. The genius behind this cleverness is Michael Haneke, whom I honestly believe to be the most important, relevant, brilliant filmmaker working today. I’ve seen – and loved – all his feature films, and they are all infused with such a raw power that we are overwhelmed by their presence on our screens… and in our minds.
Cachè, the French word for ‘hidden,’ provokes thought in a way only Michael Haneke has mastered. It builds on themes first raised in the sinister 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, and cemented in the utterly fucking fantastic Code Unknown, only four years prior. Cachè is like the final in a trilogy of these three films, and yet that statement itself seems unfair because Cachè contains themes built on and referenced in all Haneke’s films. Cachè is the most accessible of these films, and therefore understandably the most popular.
The themes in this film are so encompassing and rich that to describe them fully would take whole paragraphs. The main themes are surveillance, the idea of being watched without knowing. The story follows a middle class couple, Anne and Georges, who are sent videotapes of the outside of their house, informing them that someone is watching. The unnerving part of this is not that they are being watched, but that they have no idea how. In one videotape, Georges walks right past where the camera must be situated, and yet when he goes outside later on to examine this spot, there is no possible way the camera could’ve been hidden there without him seeing it. This is only one of the film’s chilling moments. Georges’s family history is troubling. As a child, he was responsible for a monstrous act that at the time seemed simply childish and harmless. But the victim of this act was scarred for life, and Georges believes it is this person sending the tapes. He confronts the man, named Majid, who claims to know nothing of the tapes. We are unsure. If he is lying, he is doing it very convincingly. It seems more likely he is telling the truth. Then who recorded the tapes?
For many audiences, a film that asks such questions with no intention of revealing answers would be infuriating. Not here. Even the most mainstream audiences are drawn in by the film’s intrigue, and forced to think about its questions. And if you find the ending unsatisfactory, give it another chance. The film’s stunning final shot is more complex than it looks, as are many shots in the film. But even as the film mystifies and frustrates, it also draws us in deeper. The acting performances by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche are brilliant, to say the least, and all the characters in the film have an incredible aura of knowing more than they’re saying. Possessing this most of all (aside from Georges, who projects it in every scene), is the couple’s young son Pierrot, who among many film theorists has become the prime suspect for being responsible. Haneke gives us many clues to support this, but also tauntingly gives evidence against this. Another suspect is Majid’s son, whose repressed emotions make him seem dangerous, though his manner is as polite as possible. In one fantastic scene, Majid’s son and Georges stand in an elevator, amongst half a dozen others. This scene, which is deathly quiet and seems to last forever, maybe one of the most tense scenes in movie history. I would certainly nominate it for such.
The great thing about Haneke is that if the viewer is ever losing interest, even slightly, he always manages to do something to jolt them back into the film, and get them fully dedicated to the on-screen activity. His films are well-known for their sudden, unexpected bursts of violence, or shocking, unexpected activity that startles and even terrifies. In The Seventh Continent, viewers who were bored after the first sixty minutes of the film will never forget the film’s harrowing final thirty. Benny’s Video hits the viewer where it hurts, beginning with footage of a pig being slaughtered. 71 Fragments warns the viewer of the tragedy that is to happen at its end, but those handful of gunshots are still terrifying when they occur. The Piano Teacher has one of my favourite closing scenes in movie history, and Cachè has any number of scenes of shocking, unexpected darkness to rival all these examples I’ve tirelessly listed. The most notable of them I won’t spoil, but if you were like me the first time I saw it fourteen months ago, slumping into your seat and drifting off a bit, the action that follows the dialogue: “Thank you for coming, I wanted you to be here,” will have you standing on your feet, screaming in shock. A timeless Haneke wink to the audience to wake up and think.
Despite what I may have made you think, Cachè does not require the audience to think too hard. It is not a movie that forces you to think for yourself, it is a movie that makes you want to think for yourself. Everyone has their ideas about it, as they do about its 2009 follow up, the pre-Nazi period drama The White Ribbon, which perhaps raises even more questions than Cachè. And while Cachè isn’t my favourite Haneke film (that title belongs to Code Unknown), it is easily the one I would recommend before all others, because it is a perfect introduction to the master. It’s a film that is paced so excellently that we have plenty of time to think about what we’ve seen, but never get bored. There is so much to take in here, so much to analyse, and what fun we have debating over it all. For example: there is a scene in which Georges confronts and warns Majid about terrorising him with the tapes. We later learn this conversation was video recorded. If you go back to the first time we see this scene, from Georges’s perspective, you’ll notice behind him in a corner (shown very briefly) something that is black and shiny. We only see it for a few seconds, from the distance but Haneke has us thinking. Could it be a camera lens? What could it possibly be? Exactly.
To read previous film entries in the All-Time Favourites series, click here.