4 stars (out of four)
Michael Haneke's "Cache" ("Hidden"), a thriller with a powerful political subtext, opens with a long, mysterious shot of a Parisian house, taken from across a quiet street. The shot is fixed, soundless, obviously on video: an image that we gradually learn is part of a surveillance tape anonymously given to the movie's main characters, Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche).
The Laurents are part of Paris' intellectual celebrity elite: attractive, well-schooled, affluent. He is a famous host of a Charlie Rose-style TV literary interview program; she works in publishing and writes on the side. They have a bright, if impudent, 12-year-old son named Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). Their world seems well-protected.
Who is watching them, and why? Why are they being bombarded with anonymous phone calls and odd, childlike drawings of cartoonish figures and birds, blood spurting from their mouths or necks?Those questions are only partly answered in "Cache," but the movie still radically turns our initial expectations inside out. "Cache" isn't another violent tale of a bourgeois couple and a bogeyman, like "Pacific Heights" and dozens of others. Instead, it's a psychological suspense drama with a strong political agenda, a movie in which the methods of "Rear Window" intersect with the worlds of "Blow-Up," Jean-Luc Godard's '60s political films and "The Battle of Algiers." It's a film about the paranoia of the privileged and the secret guilt of the European bourgeoisie.
Haneke, director of the sexually incendiary "The Piano Teacher," the sadistic "Funny Games," and the jolting, wonderfully named "71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance," is a master at intellectual suspense dramas in which middle-class characters are tortured by outlaws, fate, social dissolution or their own depravity.
In this movie, his stars, Auteuil ("Jean de Florette") and Binoche ("Chocolat") are such marvelous actors, they can shift us in almost any emotional direction with a speech or a glance. Despite Haneke's minimalism, they make Georges and Anne live on screen, he with his haggard face and darting eyes, she with her trademark look of radiant wounded sympathy.
The Laurents dwell in a tainted world that Haneke paints with scathing economy, from the blank book spines on Georges' TV show set to the smug loud clinks of glasses and cutlery when they entertain at home.
On the surface, they seem good people. But there is something "hidden" in Georges' private world: a childhood episode involving an Algerian boy, Majid (Maurice Benichou). Majid, whom Georges suspects of being his persecutor, was the son of an immigrant couple, workers on Georges' family's farm, who disappeared, probably murdered, in the Oct. 17, 1961, Algerian demonstrations in Paris that left hundreds dead. Georges' parents (Annie Girardot plays his mother) decided to bring up the orphan, but the jealous 6-year-old Georges tricked Majid into killing the family rooster and got him sent away, robbing the boy of his chance in life. It might seem unfair to punish someone for an act committed in childhood--if that's really what's happening--but our sympathy for Georges quickly erodes as he bullies his family and others and screams imprecations at a black bicyclist in the street. When Georges finds the grown-up Majid, a sad, soft-faced man living in a poor district in a shabby apartment with an improbably handsome son (Walid Afkir), he thinks the mystery is solved. But Majid denies responsibility for the tapes and so later does the son--even though another tape quickly appears showing Georges' meeting with Majid recorded by a hidden camera. That clash and a presumed kidnapping lead to what is probably one of the single most shocking moments of violence in any recent film--one that lasts only a few seconds but ravages you emotionally.
An Austrian moviemaker who shifted operations to France in the late `90s, Haneke films his horrific subjects with a visual austerity and minimalist intensity that sometimes seem almost an act of mercy; the stylistic distance protects you a little. "Cache" has no background music and a very simple camera style. As filmed on high-def video, many of the story's images resemble surveillance work themselves, the shots peeling the masks from the characters, especially Georges. Auteuil brilliantly brings out the selfishness and intolerance that still lie under Georges' polite persona, just as Binoche irradiates Juliette's soul with sympathy and humanity.
When I saw "Cache" at Cannes, where it was 2005's major critical hit, I thought it was overrated. (I've changed my mind.) I was annoyed then that the mystery seemed to have no obvious resolution, irritated that Georges didn't pursue simple measures at first to find the camera. Woody Allen's "Match Point" seemed, then and now, a tighter, more satisfying thriller.
"Cache" isn't just a psychological thriller, any more than "Munich" or "The Constant Gardener" are. Haneke's political themes are the raison d'etre for the whole film. And the movie's last scene, an exterior before a crowded public building, does provide a resolution of sorts, even if Haneke denies it. (Watch closely what happens in the lower left of this tableau.) "Cache" is a film about guilt and memory, both individual and collective, and Georges' predicament and sins clearly reflect the world outside the ultimate target of Haneke's and the camera's unblinking eye.
Directed and written by Michael Haneke; photographed by Christian Berger; edited by Michael Hudecek, Nadine Muse; production designed by Emmanuel De Chauvigny, Christoph Kanter; produced by Margaret Menegoz, Veit Heiduschka. In French, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: R (for brief strong violence).
Georges - Daniel Auteuil
Anne - Juliette Binoche
Georges' mother - Annie Girardot
Majid - Maurice Benichou
Georges' editor-in-chief - Bernard Le Coq
Pierrot - Lester Makedonsky
Yvon - Denis Podalydes
Majid's son - Walid AfkirCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times