" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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It is February 2006 and Colorado is finally seeing the release of Caché which was on a handful of top ten lists from 2005. It’s the latest thriller from director Michael Haneke, whose The Piano Teacher scored highly on our own top ten list from 2002.

Smile! You’re on Candid Camera

Georges' studio remarkably like his living room
Georges’ studio remarkably like his living room

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche star as Georges and Anne, well-to-do Parisians who are hounded by a mysterious stranger. They receive a videotape of their home, seen from a nearby street. Someone set up a hidden video camera and just left it running. The vague threat is creepy.

From there the threats get more specific. Georges gets pieces of paper with child-like drawings of bleeding chickens and bleeding mouths. Even their son Pierrot gets one of these disturbing drawings at school.

We soon learn — mild spoilers ahead — that, as a boy, Georges did something he’s not proud of. His parents were wealthy enough to have servants at their country house, and some of these were Algerian. The husband and wife were killed at a protest in Paris. Georges’ parents had every intention of adopting the orphaned boy Majid, but Georges was jealous, and he arranged it so that Majid would be taken away.

It could be argued that we never really find out who sent Georges and Anne the videos and drawings. When Georges tracks down Majid and confronts him, Majid denies any involvement. If that’s true, then Majid’s son must have had some hand in it. In any case, the solution to the mystery is not the point of this film.

You Voyeur, You

Director Michael Haneke uses the plot a premise for some filmmaking experiments. The most obvious of these is the use of long takes of medium shots. The film opens on an unblinking shot of Georges and Anne’s house, and only later do we discover that it’s the tape they were sent. The last two shots of the film, one set in the past and one in the present, are framed from a similarly cold distance and allowed to run for a minute or more.

The effect of this distance is make the audience feel like voyeurs, and not participants or confidantes. Haneke heightens the sensation by resorting to this technique at the most important, disturbing, and shocking moments. When we really want to get involved, he keeps us at a distance.

Other Tricks of the Trade

Haneke has other tricks up his sleeve, too. For example, it’s ironic that Georges can be so threatened by a video camera trained on his house, because his job is to sit in front of video cameras: he’s a TV talk-show host. It goes further than that. Georges’ set for his TV show looks surprisingly like his own dining room.

Haneke also includes at least two scenes that seem extraneous to the plot, and yet they feel very deliberate. The first shows Georges nearly getting hit by a cyclist after leaving the police station frustrated by the cops inaction. The scene does nothing to advance the plot, and yet the nervous tension in the scene adds to the texture of the film. The fight gets out of hand and seems to explode in Georges’ face; the cyclist is black and senses racism in Georges’ frustration.

In another scene, Georges leaves the TV on, blaring violent news from the Middle East directly in the middle of the frame. Anne comes in and they discuss who was supposed to pick up Pierrot. Again, the presence of the television seems to be a directorial mistake; it interferes with the dialogue of the characters. And yet it seems more likely that Haneke is simply pushing our buttons: we want to reach in and turn off the TV so we can find out if Pierrot is okay, but we are helpless to reduce the noise and frustration.

The sum of these tricks is a sense that Haneke is a director very much in control. He seems to be challenging the audience to get more involved. He’s inviting you to take the bait and counterattack with your own observations and connections. It’s your move.