Merry Christmas, here’s some Haneke. Yasi Naraghi reinvigorates her love of Michael Haneke films in her re-view of the surveillance drama Caché, with an eye to its colonial frameworks and terrifying banality.
I find it quite apropos that I’m reviewing Caché at this moment in time. I’m aware that I chose to do so with whatever autonomy I’m allowed intact, but I can’t help but feel—or think—that there is something acutely appropriate about this. I will explain myself and this affective thought, but before doing so, I want to say a few things about Michael Haneke’s films and the occasion of the re-viewing of Caché
I love, nay, adore Michael Haneke. The first film of his I watched was The Piano Teacher, and although too young to fully comprehend the abstractions of the film, something immediately clicked. I have watched and re-watched [and re-watched] his films ever since. His films are a quiet expanse on which the psyche plays out its desires and its anxieties through all of its perversities. His films are traumatic and mostly depict trauma but, at least in my experience, they also allow you to quietly acknowledge and address your own.
Every time, something clicks but every time, it clicks differently.
On the occasion of watching Caché for the purpose of this review, my loving partner, Stephan, joined me. He hadn’t seen it before. As a matter in fact, he hadn’t seen much Haneke except for Funny Games (the original) so I was excited to slyly—or to be more accurate, creepily—observe his reactions to the film. It would be to experience Haneke through virgin eyes. Like those parents who say they experience the world anew through their children, I was beaming in anticipation of his reactions to the scenes to come. Perhaps, I was over-anticipating.
Before going any further, here is the plot synopsis of Caché although, I feel a bit dirty writing it; Haneke’s films are rarely about the plot and more about all the ambiguities that invalidate the importance of a plotline. So here’s the plot: A Parisian couple, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche), receives multiple videotapes surveilling their home as well as other familiar exteriors that disrupts their quintessentially intellectual Parisian life. They are such a fucking epitome of intellectual bourgeois. Georges is the host of an evening talk show. Now, the French talk show is a completely different beast than, say, the American talk show. French talk shows are televised salons—featuring writers, scholars, philosophers, etc.—that litter the evening and night TV slots. Georges is the host of literary talk show which could make his marriage one of convenience since his wife, Anne, works for a publisher. To round out this clever family, there is the aloof but incredibly perceptive (and maybe even deceptive) son, Pierrot. It’s truly a pity that their oh-so-clever life is disrupted by these tapes. What’s more, these tapes begin to be accompanied by drawings of a person projectile bleeding. One of these tapes soon lead Georges to what can be construed as the banlieue where he confronts Majid (Maurice Bénichou), a French-Algerian man whose parents worked on Georges’ family farm when they were children. Majid sincerely denies being responsible for the videos…
I think I gave enough plot synopsis and context.
Caché opens with a static long shot of a residential street in Paris which becomes crowded by the opening credits. The text is small and they follow each other in a slow and steady manner. I remember being utterly uncomfortable and anxious the first time I watched the film from the second row of the movie theatre. The strange thing is that I can’t recall if I watched it in Paris or in Seattle. I do, however, remember renting it as soon as it came out on DVD; sitting no more than two feet from my television in my first apartment having the same sense of anxiety as the opening sequence played on. Over the years as I’ve re-watched Caché, I have come to attribute this anxiety to the banal—and I use ‘banal’ in the vain of Hannah Arendt and what she calls “terrifyingly normal.”
And this opening is terrifyingly normal; the normality of it always makes me anticipate an excessively violent and horrific act. That act, however, comes much later in the film and the opening sequence ends with it revealed as a video footage being watched by Georges and Anne. This occurs frequently; shots of exteriors that are conventionally filmed and read as establishing shots are found to be surveillance footage anonymously sent to Georges and Anne. “Haneke, you devil,” Stephan explained during one of these revelations, “What’s video, what’s not?!” Haneke’s oeuvre is a catalogue of narrative structure perversions and point of view redirections so it’s no surprise that he employs this technique of setting up surveillance footage as deceptive establishing shots. This functions as a mise-en-abime that not only redirects the point of view from us, the viewer, to the Laurents, it also confuses the film’s temporality as the present time is shown to be a recorded past. These tapes form the basis of the trauma toward which the film is moving.
Okay, so the anonymous nature of the tapes begs the question of whodunit as well as to what purpose? There are a few possibilities for who is responsible for the tapes: there is Majid, Majid’s son (Walid Afkir), and/or Pierrot. Ten years ago, I was more invested in trying to figure out the culpable party and I did have a theory that I thought solid but today, ten years later at the insignificant age of 28, I’m relieved to find out that I don’t give a fuck. There are films that provide cues for the viewer in order to get at a closed system. Haneke provides cues that interfere with each other and produce no resolution (or closed system).
This time around, I realized that spending too much energy on the whodunit aspect previously dulled me to the nuanced tensions of Anne and Georges’ marriage. Either that or I’ve learned something from the relationships I’ve been in in the last ten years. This time I paid more attention to the relationship between Georges and Anne as well as their son’s interpretation of it. The Laurents’ marriage is fucked up; even in its subtleties, it’s a bit played out. But the colonial commentary and the subversion of surveillance is a topic through which I can productively think.
Let’s start with the subversion of surveillance. Majid, a French-Algerian man, is first set up as the source of the videotapes before Georges finds out Majid has an adult son, who quickly becomes the only other possible responsible part. The surveillance of an upper-middle class white family is a perversion of sorts insofar as it is a transgression on their daily life whereas the Algerian man is constantly surveilled to the point that it is part of the quotidian. According to data, Arab and Muslim men are more likely be racially/ethnically profiled by the police. And it is not just an apparatus of the state that profiles these individuals but it also includes the white French. Majid as an Algerian man is constantly watched. As far as the state is concerned, he is always guilty even without any evidence. This point is illustrated in the film when Georges accuses Majid and his son of kidnapping Pierrot. As it turns out Pierrot spent the night over at a friend’s and neglected to (or consciously) failed to inform his parents. His parents’ lack of knowledge about Pierrot’s whereabouts, however, immediately criminalizes Majid and his son without any plausible reason. This time around I noticed that Georges accepts Majid and his son’s not guilty stance in the disappearance of Pierrot but he and Anne are still glad that they are detained by the state. For them, this could mean freedom from being surveilled because the Other they accused of surveilling them has become the property of the state and, thus, under state surveillance.
The funny thing, though, is that Majid and his son are under constant surveillance by the state as well as its hegemonic citizenship. This right here is very painful for me. It’s very painful for me to watch Majid and his son chained to the back of a police van with their head slung low. I want to say a lot about this scene and I wrote multiple versions of what I want to say but find myself incapable of including it here and sharing it. As I mentioned earlier, Haneke’s films are quiet expanses upon which desires and anxieties play out. Caché mainly allows for an overflow of my anxieties; a lot of which I have to work through privately. All I can say is that it’s interesting who inherits the sins of colonialism; it’s rarely the colonizer but the colonized. I was once told I belong to an evil race and that it must be difficult for me to look at myself in the mirror. Unfortunately, that is the legacy left to me, one that has been articulated to me as a sin.
But what of the legacy left to Majid?
Towards the end of the film Anne probes Georges to provide a reason as to why Majid might want to terrorize their family. She suspects that Georges is to blame for something…and he is. Georges briefly tells Anne what became of Majid’s parents. For those not familiar with the history, his explanation is vague marked with a date, 1961, and an acronym, FLN. But to those familiar with Algerian/French history, a whole colonial history spills out of that brief explanation; one that is also being denied. Majid’s parents died in the Paris massacre of 1961. In October of 1961, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), a pro-independence Algerian party, called for a mass demonstration in Paris to oppose the curfew that was ordered against Algerians and French Muslims. Maurice Papon—the then head of Parisian Police and the former general secretary of Vichy government in charge of the deportation and extermination of Jews who was not convicted of crimes against humanity until 19-fucking-98 and released in 2002—ordered the national police to block the demonstrators and later carry out raids against them. On October 17, the police opened fired on the (peaceful) demonstrators and drowned many of the demonstrators in the Seine. In addition to this, Algerians were executed in police custody. Majid’s parents were brutally murdered by the state; the same state that later takes possession of Majid.
After the death of Majid’s parents, Georges’ parents express interest in adopting him to the chagrin of Georges. Majid suffers from tuberculosis which is intimated in an earlier flashback scene in which he is bleeding from his mouth, an event that was witnessed by young Georges and prompted him to dissuade his parents from adopting Majid. One of the last scenes of the film is a static long shot of Georges’ childhood home in front of which Majid is struggling with social workers who are removing him from the only home he has known. Because of Georges, Majid is criminalized at a very young age. Majid doesn’t forget about this which might explain the scene of his suicide. Majid calls Georges to his apartment before slitting his throat in front of an unsuspecting Georges; “I called you because I want you to be present” is the only thing Majid offers Georges before taking a knife to his throat. In this scene, Majid is asking Georges to be witness to a metaphor for colonial occupation and, subsequently, to France’s colonial history.
The colonial commentary of this film is pretty obvious. The main characters are Algerian and French which is always a point of friction. Let me say this, France magnificently denies its own history. It’s atrocious to what extent this denial runs (one example is the aforementioned Maurice Papon). Georges doesn’t remember what he did to Majid until the videotapes remind him. The memory is there but Georges defers its resurrection. The acceptance of this memory challenges Georges’ life. It challenges it on an intellectual level. After all, he is one of the cultural trendsetters whose liberation of thought cannot be questioned by his childhood actions and adult racist attitude. It’s like the friend you have who says, “I’m not racist but…”. Georges defers or, more precisely, displaces his own guilt by pronouncing Majid guilty. Caché doesn’t end with any resolution. The source of the tapes is never revealed although, due to the final shot of the film which depicts Pierrot speaking to Majid’s son, some argue otherwise. What’s more, Georges actually never admits to any responsibility on his part. I didn’t think much about Georges’ position at the end of the film when I first watched it. This time around though, I was concerned about the consistency of his denial.
Now that I have come to the end of this review, I should explain why it is appropriate that I’m reviewing Caché at this moment in time. The aftermath of the Paris attacks in November and the San Bernardino attack put me back, emotionally, to where I was in 2005 when I first watched Caché. There were several instances in the last month that I found myself incapable of engaging with the world because all of a sudden the temporal and spatial distance that separated me from the self that had to first hear, “you’re just an Arab whore who deserves to be—,” was no longer there.
- I highly recommend watching an episode of the three-hour long On n’est pas couché on Youtube. On n’est pas couché is what talk shows on steroid look like. Georges hosts a very sober talk show.
- There’s an argument to be made about the audience’s relationship to the film and the anxiety produced by watching a filmed recording. I’m sure many have articulated it better than I could.
- I felt claustrophobic watching this film this time around.
- There are a lot of disembodied voices in this film. Some are eventually embodied such as the voices of Anne and Georges. Some are not like in the case of Pierrot’s swim coach.
- Maurice Papon is a testament of the French denial. A fascinating case that reveals France’s systematized rotten core.
- As you may have noticed, I soon lost interest in Stephan’s reactions to the film. Haneke does that; it’s just you and the film.
- Reviewing Caché has inspired me to spend my winter break to re-watch all of Haneke’s films so I’ll be writing my dissertation and watching Haneke. Let’s see how I come out the other end.