Saturday, December 26, 2009


In some ways, Michael Haneke is the soapboxing, socially conscious heir to Alfred Hitchcock: concerned less with psychosexual hangups than the growing impact of video and the omnipresence of modern communication on our daily lives. "A feature film is 24 lies per second," he once said (a cynical response to Jean-Luc Godard's declaration of the truth of images), and one imagines him saying it while brandishing a cane and telling neighborhood children to stay off his lawn. But there's a certain charm -- for lack of a better word -- in his irascibility, as well as his firm hand on suspense.

Indeed, no other film of the decade so completely captures
Hitch's capacity for filtering pop psychology through the sieve of a thriller than his magnum opus Caché, which took Cannes by storm back in 2005. Where Hitch derived his tension through his masterful direction and pacing -- perceptive audiences will note how bad the effects were in his films, and I say "perceptive" because he was so skilled at grabbing your attention that one must break away from its current to focus on the problem -- Haneke opens Caché with a static long take. In the frame is the exterior of a house in Paris: not a modest flat, nor an opulent house. It plays in silence until two characters in a voiceover begin to speak over it. At last, lines appear in the image, and the action reverses, revealing the image to be a videotape watched by those speaking over it.

The voices belong to Georges Laurent (Daniel
Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), two bourgeois French intellectuals who first regard the tape with curiosity: is it a prank? How did Georges walk in front of the camera and look in its general direction -- as evidenced by the tape -- without seeing it? When more tapes arrive, however, accompanied by crude, childlike drawings of violent acts, their curiosity morphs into fear, which in turn becomes uncontrollable paranoia. In a nod to Hitchcock, Haneke has put his hand in Rear Window and turned it inside out.

That inversion of
Hitch's plot is but a small piece of Haneke's larger stance as the perfect antimatter for the master of suspense and his style: Hitch used threadbare plots and basic acting to force his audience into cheap identification before turning their world upside-down to reduce them to primal states of fear and lust. It's a barbaric method of filmmaking, but it's also often entertaining as hell and I never did leap aboard the haters' wagon. Haneke too can be cruel: his camera -- even when following the characters outside of his subtly terrifying static voyeurism -- is objective and detached, preventing even a tenuous emotional identification between the audience and characters. But that objectivity serves him just as a 3rd person perspective benefits an author, allowing him to gauge his characters and the situations around them.

His emotional distance reveals many social issues evident in the couple's relationship, such as the gender gap. Georges works on a TV show,
bloviating with other critics on the merits of works of art; their program likely strikes even the French as pretentious. Anne is no less intelligent, but Haneke undercuts the idea of equality in the modern, educated couple by making Georges the bread-winner and the final word on every subject. Neither devotes much time to their son Pierrot, as Georges subtly hints that it's "woman's work" and Anne is too busy protesting the inequality in her relationship with her husband to care for the child. When she protests her husband's exclusive attempts to find their tormentor and counters his pleas for her to simply "trust" him with a plea for him to reciprocate on that trust, Georges looks at his wife as if she's gone mad. Haneke is harsh, but sympathetic to her helplessness, viewing her inability to assert herself not as a personal or biological weakness but the result of a social structure that continues to oppress women, different from past times in that it name check equality to look superior. Contrasted with Hitchcock's brand of sexism, Haneke's is an actual commentary on that sexism.

As the unseen voyeur -- it might as well be
Haneke himself -- he slowly guides these decreasingly sane individuals to epiphanies; Caché is less about the hidden camera than what has been hidden in these characters to shape them into the people we see. The Laurents receive footage of areas other than their own house, leading Georges to the apartment of Majid, a man from Georges' past. Majid, an Algerian immigrant who lived with Georges and his parents until Georges told lies to have him ejected, evokes themes of racism and social status -- Majid's son later tells Georges that his father could have gotten an education had he stayed with the Laurents and not been forced into an orphanage, that he too might have enjoyed a comfortable upper-middle class life instead of dwelling in a cramped apartment into late middle age. For a deceptively simple film, Haneke manages to uncover not only the lingering ignorance even among the intellectuals but the echoes of the racist past of the country itself (Majid's story is closely tied to the Algerian War and the Paris massacre of 1961).

Georges and
Majid's confrontation also permits Haneke to study our ability to convince even ourselves of our lives. Georges has put his childhood menace out of mind, but he begins to suffer nightmares of that childhood (the images in his dreams coincide with the drawings accompanying the tapes) that show how, even subconsciously, he believes the story he told his parents to remove Majid from his home. Haneke pokes holes in his own maxim by showing the truth of video, not its capacity for manipulation and deceit. Home video devices store data, or memory, to be played back for buyers -- this is more literally true of digital media like DVDs or Blu-Ray than the analog videocassettes sent to the Laurents -- and Haneke refashions them into devices to store human memory as well; after all, what is a home movie but a memory permanently enshrined in a hard copy?

direction is never showy, but he and his editors, Michael Hudecek and Nadine Muse, have the skill of maintaining the atmosphere of a thriller even as the question of who's recording these tapes and tormenting this family fades into an exploration of those characters. The simple act of transitioning from those drab, immobile shots of building exteriors to tracking and panning shots of the characters is jolting, often leaping from the dully lit static shots to bright and colorful action, such as young Pierrot in swim meets. Some may even get hung up with the lack of action in the film, as it's so concise and well-paced that even those who admire its exploration of themes can't be faulted for constantly expecting more action than Haneke gives us.

Haneke shows only two scenes of violence, one odd and somewhat imagined, the other a stark, horrific moment that's all too real. This last act brings a terrible finality to Majid and Georges' decades-long conflict and a sobering look at how France's post-'68 intellectual socialism still hasn't eradicated the racism and disparity between classes that drive some people to desperation (La Haine was an excellent glimpse into this social problem as well). But, for all Haneke's supposed misanthropy and cynicism -- here is a man so pissed off by the lasting relevance of his 1997 work Funny Games that he remade it shot-for-shot a decade later with English-speaking actors so he could get ignorant Americans to watch it without bitching about suffering the indignity of having to "read" a film -- he has the optimism to insert the film's epilogue, an unheard conversation between the sons of Majid and Georges. Perhaps Haneke does not allow us to hear what they have to say because it is not worth hearing, a rehash of their parents' conflict that starts the cycle anew. But maybe, just maybe, their brief meeting contains the spark of reconciliation, and the hope that, through talking out issues and understanding the problems that plagued past generations, the current youth can one day move beyond a legacy of hate and fear. Didn't know ya had it in you, you cranky Austrian bastard.


  1. I know it's not the most popular view, but I think Haneke is a pretty shallow filmmaker, and I really don't think he is as intelligent as he or his fans think he is. It's extraordinary to me that critics praise Haneke like they do, but continue to mock De Palma, Hitchcock's true heir, and a filmmaker who, while in his sixties, managed to create two masterpieces this decade (Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia). With that said, I think you raise some pretty great points here. Your thoughts on Hitchcock are excellent. Our identification with his characters may or may not be "cheap," but what separates him from Haneke is that he does not let himself off the hook. Haneke points fingers, but there is real self-implication in Hitch's cinema. Same thing goes for De Palma's bizarrely underrated The Black Dahlia. In the scene where Betty Short is talking to an off-screen casting agent who is pretty disgusting, it's the director himself talking to her. De Palma himself says the lines. But there is so much critical distance with Haneke that it's like watching fish in a bowl. He's afraid to identify with anything in the film.

  2. I have no solid opinion of Brian De Palma yet. I've only seen a few of his films -- and I'm not a real fan of Scarface -- but I've had The Untouchables on Blu-Ray almost as long as I've had my PS3 but haven't watched it yet. I'll probably peep it before my Xmas break ends and probably double back later to do a film-by-film retrospective of his work. Won't be for a while though, as I'm still technically doing these for both John Carpenter and Sam Raimi (really need to get back to these).

  3. Admittedly, neither Scarface nor The Untouchables are his best. I would recommend Sisters, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Carlito's Way, Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia as some of his greatest works.

  4. Doniphon, I think your points are fair with regard to Haneke's earlier films, where as much as I admire their formal precision and aesthetic merits, I'm turned off by the simplistic moralizing and finger-pointing from behind the camera. In his more recent features, starting arguably with Code Unknown and leaving out the singleminded Funny Games, Haneke has become a much more sophisticated and complex filmmaker, delivering his ideas with more nuance and less head-bashing moralizing. As Jake points out, Caché ends with a moment of understated (and easy-to-miss) optimism, a faint suggestion that there's a possibility of things changing, a possibility at least that the cycles of hatred, prejudice and exploitation might not continue forever but can be broken with a new generation. In his recent films, even where the endings might be bleak, there's a sense that he's now allowing his characters more agency of their own, providing them with a way out. They don't always take it — Erika in The Piano Teacher certainly doesn't — but his films no longer seem like contrived, inescapable traps designed to teach a lesson. There's more of a sense now that these are real characters with real desires and drives, and that they have real options.

  5. Ed, that's a really really eloquent response, and I don't think a better case could be made for Haneke. And I completely agree that the Haneke who made Funny Games is very different from the Haneke who made Cache and The White Ribbon. It does, at least partially, seem to be a case of a wolf in sheep's clothing though. For me, anyway. The White Ribbon's images are fairly incredible, and some of the characters are interesting and, as you say, have real options, but what Haneke seems to be saying in the movie does not strike me as being particularly deep or profound (I may be misremembering, but isn't it prefaced with a title card that states this movie should help explain what happened in this country...meaning the ascension of the Nazi party?). I think Glenn Kenny said it's actual themes come off as easy and kind of trite, which I agree with.

    The same thing, in my opinion, goes for Cache. The characters seem to be capable of doing anything, and I welcome the final scene as much as you and Jake do. However, Haneke holds these people at such a distance, as if he's afraid of identifying with them in any way. I find that really hard to respect or appreciate, and especially since Haneke's cinema is undeniably moralistic, I think it's fair to say that I find that position to be morally pretty cowardly.