Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Caché: Film Analysis
So last night, in lieu of working on an essay that I probably should have been directing my efforts toward, I watched Michael Haneke’s celebrated film, Caché. I’d heard a lot about it–I knew it was one of those divisive films you either love or hate, yet I assumed I would like it (I’m usually a sucker for arty-cerebral films). So, after watching it, here are some thoughts on it’s construction and, well, “meaning.” I’m assuming you’ve seen the film if you’re reading this–if you haven’t, this will utterly ruin the rush of seeing it for the first time.
I’ve copied above the various translations of the word caché–we can note that it means, essentially, that which is hidden, or held secret. We see quite clearly as we’re watching what is variously hidden (the irony, of course, is that we know from the start that something is hidden, it’s given to us as the placard for the film): the ambiguous “filmer” of the tapes, Georges’ past history with Majid, marital trust, the motive of the filmer, Pierrot’s inner self from his parents. Often, we are derailed by watching a shot, thinking it’s objective narrative of the film, only to suddenly see fuzzy horizontal lines fill the screen, and we’ve been had–we were only watching a videotape of the real action. During these scenes, we are sitting next to George and his wife Anne, experiencing it with them for the first time. They analyze the actions of the filmer as George would pour over a book on his show–they search constantly for the root, the answer. The books which populate a wide slew of shots underlines this–seriously, watch it again if you didn’t notice. There are piles of books in a ridiculous amount of shots. It’s almost conspicuous how heavy-handed this motif is–but that’s exactly the point. Haneke wants us to search, wants us to be just as George and Anne are, watching ambiguous slow film, trying to divine deeper meaning. I’ll come back to this in just a minute–lets first gather some kind of foundation for this relationship between we as viewers, and the actors as performers.
The structurally formative long, long shots both confound and assist this motif of hiding: we scour the shots by necessity, we are actively looking for something as viewers, rather than being shown–and often, nothing is shown. We are kept on our toes. This is part of the power of these shots, they jar so coyly with our normal experience of watching a movie, and put us on edge. We wait at all times for something to happen–consider the shot of George closing all the windows, undressing himself, then lying on the bed in low indigo glow. The shots are not all truthful either: we learn that we are often not able to trust what we are seeing. Case in point–remember this shot?
This is the angle from George and Anne’s bedroom window, looking down on the spot in the street where the filmer must have planted the camera. Yet after some time on a steady cam, we are torn away, and walk backwards through the room in POV. We hear gurgling, sputtering. Suddenly we see a young Majid, actually spitting up blood. This is evidence of how George’s memory begins to leak into the film–like visual Freudian slips his subconscious past surfaces. This is how terrible events are suffocated, just as the mass killing of hundreds of Algerians (including Majid’s parents) is a cultural memory repressed from the French conscience, too ugly to revisit.
So what then do we make of the suicide scene? This is the height of the film, and it’s suddenness is so palatable after so much stillness. Majid calls George, wants him to watch as his life drains out on the floor. He will not let George write his past off as a dream–Majid is a casualty of George’s offensively brusque dismissal of anyone who is not him. We watch from the same vantage point of the cassette that was made days earlier–implying perhaps that this event is filmed. Or, even if it isn’t, we are watching, we are the ones who hold George accountable for his brutal selfishness.
And what of the mysterious tapes? Who is the culprit? We can, if we want, play a little game of Clue, though I think in the end it is not necessary. We initially peg Majid’s son for the videos–it was he who had access to his father’s apartment, he who had motive to be angry at George (for his father was educationally and economically disadvantaged by George), and somehow he knew that George was present at the suicide. Yet there’s the final shot confounding a closed case: years later, we watch as Majid’s son meets Pierrot on the stairs outside of school. It’s hard even to catch, but you can see Majid’s son entering from the right, and crossing leftwards up the stairs to Pierrot. They walk away, and the movie ends. Suddenly we suspect Pierrot as an accomplice: his churlish attitude, conspicuous absences, knowledge of what could be his mother’s infidelity. But it is at this point that I must stop playing detective. This is precisely what the film wants us to do, to bring to bear all of the analytic machines we have to discern the filmer, and the nature of his grudge. But it is no one who has made the films. Consider the film placed inside the doorstop as George is yelling in the street at their dinner party. I suppose, conceivably, Pierrot could have waited in the mud room while his father went outside, but to what end? And how would he have known the house that George grew up in? No, the films are a mystical element: they are the manifestations of George’s buried memories. It is history coming to take its toll.
The film places us beside Anne and George. We are witnesses of all, left to find some kind of larger meaning. Any time we see a long steady cam shot, we are conceivably watching through the filmer’s eyes. Just as George speaks of abstract nothings in his book discussion show, he leaves the set and suddenly the threat of the watcher is with him. Film itself is the hider, the concealer–it warps our perceptions along with a cultural history which is not objective. But in the end, what are we left with to consider? Who was the culprit? We’ve already explored the relationship between Majid and George, there seems to be no other hidden story. The meeting of Pierrot and Majid’s son only serves to poke us in the side, to laugh at us. The movie wants to break our conceptions of a modern movie, it wants to shock us in every way it can. And it does, but ultimately I don’t think we’re left with enough. It is probing in the way Beckett’s plays are–in that emptiness is the answer. There is nothing else. The enigma is the sole pursuit, and it leads us nowhere. I’m glad the film was made, but I think it needed a little more to leave the watcher thinking about.