Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Director of Photography: Christian Berger
OK, so a quick run-down of What Happens In Caché. Auteuil and Binoche (he a TV intellectual; she a book publisher) start receiving surveillance footage of their own home, and creepy drawings, in childish hand, seemingly depicting some sort of nightmare incident from the past. The police refuse to help, as the video and drawings don’t constitute a direct threat, and Auteuil clams up, though it’s clear the un-wanted materials have something to do with some past incident in which he was involved. Turns out, then, that he can track down the source of the stalker material – said source, Majid, a now forty-something Algerian man, living in subsidized housing, was adopted by Auteuil’s family as a kid, after his parents were killed in the 1961 Paris Massacre, but kicked out and sent to an orphanage when a jealous Auteuil fabricated an incident involving the beheading of a chicken. Majid proceeds to commit suicide in front of Auteuil, who is subsequently confronted by M’s (un-named) son at work. After brushing him off, and returning home, our man tries to pretend that all’s back to normal, takes two sleeping pills and falls asleep in a darkened room. Oh, and it all ends with an ambiguous and contentious final shot, but we’ll get to that in due course.
The menacing stalker tactics employed by Majid are of course meant to seem creepy; the set-up being that we’re watching a thriller, the first shot maybe signalling an ‘enemy of the state’-style surveillance-paranoia movie: you're not safe even in your own home. But this, of course, is only a tactic to draw one in, so that one takes on the middle-class intellectual family's detachment (where everything is filtered through television, through radio, through newspapers, through books – nothing at first hand, nothing material), before the rug is well and truly pulled from under the feet of both characters and audience. Let’s take that moment when a news clip covering the Iraq war is seen in un-framed full-screen, before we pull out and see it safely boxed inside the television on which the characters watch (or don’t watch) it. (Haneke: "We fixed a neutral date and chose news items on television on that date. It had nothing to do with the content. But of course, you always see images of war, and that fit with the subject of the film.") Such a removal of the framing device prevents escape, prevents us from saying ‘it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie’ – I mean, for that moment, we are watching a news report, we aren’t watching a movie, we can’t just switch the tv off and go to bed. So now we see and hear the (socio-economic) realities that really underline a comfortable middle-class existence, with books and wine and dinner parties and Rimbaud. (The latter is here understood (in the brief snippet of Auteuil's TV show that we’re shown) not as the revolutionary poet that Kristin Ross shows him to have been, but as a flamboyant individualist, a gay colonial adventurer, his work discussed, not via the Paris Commune, say, or modernism, but family problems with his censoring sister (who, appropriate to the film’s overall theme and title, ‘hid’ (Cachéd away) the poems of his that shocked her). All very much ‘épater le bourgeois’ – and now Rimbaud’s work has been recuperated by precisely those bourgeois, subsumed into the ‘sophisticated’ wing of the culture industry.) The first time we see that Iraq news clip, our immediate reaction is no doubt: 'this isn't relevant to the plot; why is this still showing while the narrative conversation between Auteuil and Binoche carries on regardless?' Of course, though, the idea is that the clip is relevant, that the sort of activity it captures (imperialist, military exploitation under the guise of ‘humanitarian intervention’) does underlie everything we do, everything we allow our governments to do, by proxy, for us.
Take, too, the scene where Binoche takes a call from Auteuil at a book launch party and her conversation is heard simultaneously, and with equal prominence to that of the drunk intellectual next to her talking about Baudrillard, Wittgenstein, &c. These figures become just names, standing in for intellectual 'engagement' (Baudrillard as the classic example of someone who went from post-68 leftist engagement to post-modernist 1990s fatalism (for more on this, see Sadie Pant’s first book, ‘The Most Radical Gesture’)). Such names can be checked merrily, and harmlessly, while the plot, the repressed past, unfolds at the same time, via Binoche's phone-call. These people aren't necessarily right-wing – indeed, they’d probably consider themselves liberal or even leftist (the book Binoche is helping to publish is about globalisation, as we learn in the conversation between Auteil and his producer) – but underneath it all lie assumptions and reliances shared with the most bigoted and comfortable of the right.
And take the encounter with the black guy going the wrong way down a one way street on his bike – in the context of the narrative 'mystery' we're still trying to piece together, we suspect him as being part of a network of malignant kidnappers or schemers, an accomplice in a conspiracy of the ethnic 'other', the revenge of this repressed other against the white middle-classes (against the failed revolutionaries of 68 perhaps, that compromised generation who have become the new neo-liberal elite, standing for the very things they fought against - racism, imperialism, interventionism, sexism (take a look at Dominique Strauss-Khan….and take a look at Richard Seymour’s ‘The Liberal Defence of Murder’ while you’re at it.)). So, like Auteuil’s character, we’re drawn into that spooked mindset which doesn’t even realize its own (hidden) racism, where every black guy on the street is a potential mugger or rapist, every Muslim a potential terrorist. It’s an encounter with obvious symbolic levels which also fits in with the notion I started with: that the film draws us into a racist/paranoid mindset to reveal our own racism and denial of the guilty secrets that underline our system, our comfortable middle-class existence – not only the secrets of the past (the 1961 massacre), but, continuing into the present, Sarkozian racism, the banning of the hijab, fears of Islamic terrorism, demonisation of Arabs and blacks, &c. (All this can, of course, be seen in the reaction to the 2005 French riots and their 2011 British equivalent (in its most extreme form, with the hideous spectacle of David Starkey’s unconcealed racism on Newsnight, his invocation of all those hoary old clichés about the damaging effect of brutal, barbaric, ‘uncivilised’ black music (he’s talking about rap, they said it about jazz in the 1920s – “Playing that bloody jungle music all night” – yo, Adolf!).
Even in broad daylight – the shoulder check, the near-collision in the street – things are still not quite out in the open. Auteuil doesn’t call the guy a ‘nigger’. Doesn’t even think that word, perhaps. Caché. Everything is hidden – no more so than in the (in)famous final shot, in which an apparently crucial plot detail (the friendly meeting between Majid’s son and Auteuil’s kid, Pierrot) is smothered behind the credits and a seemingly innocuous diurnal scene – the school, which of course is already more than innocuous, contrasting as it does with the previous scene in which the Algerian kid is taken away. This school, then, is the kind of opportunity he was denied by Auteuil’s lie; it’s also a reversal of the first, extended shot of the film (the held frame with Auteuil’s house in the middle-distance), in which we look for narrative information, perhaps suspecting that this shot will contain the seeds for the mystery to come, that we may pick up clues which will come in handy later in solving it, only to realise as the film goes on that we won't find these; so, by the time of this final shot, we assume that this will be just another example of willful alienation and expectation-frustration, and switch off (oh, credits rolling, let's leave the cinema, maybe wait for the gag roll at the end), only to miss this potentially crucial detail. Pierrot hides from his parents (and from the audience) his reason for going AWOL, the night they (erroneously) thought that he’d been kidnapped by Majid; Auteuil, at the end, literally hides in the dark, under the bed-covers, narcotized by sleeping pills. In this film, things are hidden in plain sight. There is no ‘mystery’ in the detective-drama sense – indeed, viewed from that perspective, many things may seem too obvious, too immediately apparent – oh, yeah, Majid’s the stalker, of course – but then we're not so sure, and then it doesn't matter anywhere, because that plot was itself a MacGuffin, was itself hiding the metaphorical/ allegorical notions of colonial guilt. We miss the one-sentence discussion of the FLN massacre in our desire to catch what’s happening in the ‘main plot’. As Haneke says, how could you just forget a massacre like that? There’s how.
Such forgetting is, of course, a key part of the relation between generations, which is itself a key part of the film. Take the conversation between Auteuil and his mother, in which she tells him that she doesn't think about Majid any more. Auteuil's parents were non-racist enough to travel all the way to Paris in order to collect the boy and adopt him after his parents' death in the demonstration. (OK, maybe they thought of them perhaps in a slightly patronising way (“good people, good workers”), but still, they had enough of a sense of humanism to see that these others were not fundamentally evil or barbaric, that their progeny could even become one of their own.) Yet Auteuil himself is of the next generation who, perhaps as a sense of loss at the colonial empire gone, perhaps as a result of aggression and/ at failure channelled into immigration-related paranoia after the failure of ’68 and the institutionalisation (and recuperation) of socialist politics via Matterand, have become more racist than their parents, even as they flirt with post-modernism and liberalism/leftism, adopt that vocabulary.
Given this, I think we should take Majid's death as a moment of necessary abjection, in Kristeva’s sense of the word: that moment that brings us starkly up close to the real – a corpse, a woman's body (so often stigmatised as disgusting or ‘unnatural’, even as it is fetishised or adored), the repressed memory of the (literal) shit on which our entire culture is built, our foundational anal fixation (see Adorno’s ‘Negative Dialectics’) – and in this case, the real of colonial oppression, the dead Algerian before you on the floor, his blood and his body there on the floor before you. The Algerian man literally has to die in front of the French man, not in a 1960s film, now ‘historical’, portraying events that occurred at some temporal remove in a distant country (‘The Battle of Algiers’), but in a modern flat, in front of a pair of modern eyes. So when, before the deed, Majid says, “I wanted you to be here,” he’s not offering an explanation along the lines of “this is why I’m doing this” – that wouldn’t suffice – but forcing that internal shock of recognition, that internal jolt which forces one to look, to see: look up, face it, this is it, this is reality.
Coming back, then, to that closing shot, that possible 'revelation' (or MacGuffin): Robin Wood argues in his review that the film’s pessimism is “surely…qualified by that last shot, echoing the end of Benny's Video (in which the boy betrays his own father, an act that Haneke courageously sees as justified) and suggesting the possibility of collaboration, revolution, and renewal within the younger generation." This doesn't have to mean that Pierrot, the son (the clown-related name has to be significant here, but I’m not sure in what way, exactly) was in on the deal, for some reason deciding to torment his own parents; but rather, that he can establish friendly relations with the (un-named) Algerian son, instead of treating him with contempt or fear or threats or lies, as his father does, or with convenient forgetfulness, as his grandmother does. If a crucial strain of the film has to do with generational changes in race relations – from the patronising but well-meaning attitudes of the ‘50s to a contemporary paranoia masked with an apathy that cloaks the issues at stake with a veil (uh, not a hijab) of liberalism – then perhaps this ending suggests (as does ‘La Haine’s’ central grouping, its three musketeers of the banlieues – Arab, Black and Jew) the possibility of healthier interracial relations being established by the young. (This was, after all, the betrayed dream of ’68 – the young atoning for the sins of the old, making a new world free of stagnant prejudices, of repressed and repressive institutions and the damaged social relations these generated). It's a fragile moment, if that's so, and one which most will not even notice – but perhaps that's the point: Haneke's saying, look, look - the solutions, the possibilities, the glimpses are there, if you'd only get out of your paranoia and your fear and your racist shell & see them, 'hidden' right in front of your own face. That makes him sound far too manifesto-like, of course – I’ve followed Wood's conclusion too far, perhaps, expanded that point too much.
And yet...in an interview with Bright Lights Film Journal, Haneke has this to say:
"We all take sleeping pills as does Daniel Auteuil, although it may take many different forms: it may be alcohol, a drink before we go to bed, it may be sleeping pills, or we may donate money to children in the third world. But each of us pulls the blanket over our heads and hopes that the nightmares won't be too bad. For example, I am sure you oppose strict immigration laws that have been introduced in almost every European country. And yet what would you say if I were to suggest that you take into your home an African family? I think this is the case with all of us. All of us have knowledge that tends to lead to tolerance; at the same time we have selfish interests that are contradictory to this tolerant ideal."
If that’s nowhere near as hopeful as my suggestion of comradeship or, at least, of tentative inter-racial interaction not based on mutual hostility or suspicion, then it does at least act as a problematization, a jerking out of complacency, a foregrounding of the issues at hand, putting the political back into the idea of the domestic, making a political film not as explicit Pontecorvo-style engagement ('The Battle of Algiers' is, I believe, the only French film made about the whole Algerian crisis), but by showing complicity in every area of life, stripping away the layers of insulation into a single act of insistently present violence (tho' even this is viewed thru the video camera), and creating a nagging aura, an atmosphere of unease and uncertainty throughout which is far more than just cheap effect, far more than just some cheap scary thrill or frisson, a stimulus for its own sake. Chew on this:
"How do you behave when confronted with something that you should actually admit responsibility for? These are the sort of strategies that interest me, talking yourself out of guilt. It's like this: we all believe we're so fantastically liberal. None of us want to see immigration laws tightened. Yet when someone comes to me and asks if I could take in a foreign family, then I say, well, not really. Charity begins at home with the door firmly shut. Most people are as cowardly and comfortable as I am."
(And, yeah, check this cache also.)