The opening shots — or shot, rather — of Caché goes on for so long that it calls attention to the fact that we’re staring. This is exactly the idea, because Caché is all about the feeling that someone is watching us, taking notes, preparing to observe our downfall. We see a house, on a quiet city street somewhere in France, and we hear the words of the couple inside — as if we were parked across the street, staring, listening in on a wiretap. Before long the image we see fast-forwards with a blur. We’re looking at a few minutes of a videotape, a two-hour Warhol-like take of the house that was filmed and then left on their porch in a plastic bag.
Why? “Someone’s idea of a joke?” hypothesizes the husband, Georges (Daniel Auteuil). His wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), is faintly dismissive of the whole thing: there are more important things to worry about. They have a son, Pierrot, and Georges has a steady job as the host of a weekly TV talk show, so maybe one of George’s “fans” has decided to pull a prank. It doesn’t seem that important. Then another tape shows up, this one shot at night and wrapped in a disturbing-looking child’s drawing, and Georges begins to act in a way that suggests far more than just being unnerved. He seems to be remembering something which he would rather leave buried, because as we find out, that is how he chooses to deal with his problems: he ignores them, and hopes they vanish.
The first of the tapes that show up simply sit and observe Georges's house from the outside. Their very
presence unnerves him and their family, but soon they will be accompanied by other things that are worse.
Other things happen. He receives postcards with the same creepy design. More tapes show up, with ever more disturbing pictures included. It gets to the point where we start to question each shot pre-emptively, especially when they’re held for any length of time: are we really watching the movie, or are we seeing yet another bit of video that’s been served up to Georges and his family? Then the contents of the tapes begin to change, and Georges is reminded in full force of something from his own past that he has held back for entirely too long. But when Anne asks him what it might be, he is vague and guarded — so much so that Anne cannot see this as anything but an attack on her. Perhaps it is, and like her, we only know as much about him as he has let on until now.
There is a great deal more, but I won’t spoil it here: one of the real pleasures of Caché is watching it all for yourself and seeing how it unfolds. A movie like this could have been constructed any number of other ways, most of them relying on cheap shock or dumb plot gimmicks to get to an appropriately violent ending. Caché does use some of the devices of a more conventional movie — concealing information from the viewer, mainly — but it works mainly because the real subject of the movie is Georges’s state of mind during this whole affair, and how he responds to things. Look at the scene where he follows clues in one of the videotapes and meets someone who might be involved in what has happened, and then watch how he explains (or, rather, doesn’t explain) the whole encounter to his wife later — and what follows from that as well. It was during this scene, by the way, that I realized the movie had no musical score — everything we see carries itself along on its own tension.
As Georges feels increasingly threatened from outside, pressures mount from within as well,
and the movie becomes a study of how Georges deals (or does not deal) with what he's faced with.
The movie is not entirely made out of creepy static moments, either. In fact, most of the time it works well to give us a sense of Georges and his family as people: during a dinner party, for instance, or a fondly-observed scene where Georges visits his mother in the country and they talk about which of them is really the lonelier. The business of living their lives goes on, even if something is very wrong underneath it all — which makes it all the more effective when we switch back to the more “conventional” POV device of the video tapes. At least one scene in the film had me skipping back a few scenes and squinting at screenshots: we’ve been shown where a camera would be, but it simply isn’t there. In a way, I was glad there wasn’t one; that would have made the movie into a mere puzzle instead of a story — one where all the problems in the movie would magically vanish once you dropped the pieces into place.
Director Michael Haneke first came to my attention through his 1997 film Funny Games, another movie that broke the fourth wall but for ends that many people did not find admirable; it was a close cousin to Man Bites Dog in both theme and execution. He moved past that, thankfully, and since then has not only created Caché but another movie I admired quite a bit, Time of the Wolf, where he neatly sidestepped the possibility that the movie would devolve into a mere series of gimmicks. The focus stayed on his characters, as it does here, and even Wolves’s inconclusive ending had that much more weight because of it. Caché does have its share of startling moments — there’s one about three-fourths of the way through the film that is a real heart-stopper — but they are always in service of what’s going on.
The film presents us with possibilities, but shies away from a definitive answer —
maybe because it's trying to produce in us the same uneasy feelings its characters have.
Caché itself was shot on video — the high-definition HDCAM system — which gives it a clean and faintly sterile appearance that actually fits the movie nicely. We’ve reached the point where shooting on digital video is no longer something people are forced to do because of low budgets, but a genuine aesthetic choice; most people would never suspect Caché had been shot on anything but film. But the technical aspects of the movie are a distant second to how it works as a story, and as storytelling. Just when I think the movies have bottomed out and done everything they could do, along comes something like Caché to remind me that we’ve barely started exploring what’s possible.
Afterword: Much of the meaning of what happens, and especially the film’s final scenes, have inspired an endless amount of theorizing. The last shot in particular seems bewildering since it doesn’t seem to exist for any particular reason, but look more closely: you’ll see two key characters on the left-hand side of the screen having a conversation, and while you can’t hear what they say (apparently Haneke filmed this but deleted it), the fact that they talk to each other at all is intriguing, but can be explained as mundane through any number of mechanisms. My favorite interpretation is that the film is not intended to have conventional closure, just as the guilt that Georges feels (and the pain experienced by one other person in the film) has no closure either. In short, Caché works in something of the same way as Oldboy: it’s an empathy machine, one which creates in us the same tension and dismay that its characters are feeling.Afterword #2: The most “conventional” explanation I have heard of the film so far seems to fit all of the available evidence, and while I’m more in favor of an open-ended one as described above, here it is: Pierrot suspected (whether correctly or not) that his mother was being unfaithful for some time, which explains his reticence and general air of disdain early on in the film. He grew disgusted with his parents in general, and sought a way to hurt them. On meeting the Algerian man’s son in his school, the two learned who each other’s parents were and decided to work out a plan: Pierrot would shoot the tapes whenever possible, the other man would supply the other material (including the “child’s drawings”), and the rest would in theory unfold naturally. (It also means that the Algerian man’s son was lying.) Since the time of the last shot in the film is fairly indeterminate, it doesn’t have to indicate that it happened after everything we saw had already unfolded; it simply indicates the two knew each other. But on the whole I prefer the more open-ended and indeterminate explanation that the movie seems more naturally suited to; an explanation this mechanical is, to use a phrase I’ve brought up before, like cutting a drum open to see what makes it go bang.