Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Responsibility For The Image

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2006)

Michael Haneke’s Cache (Hidden) is almost incalculably more satisfying than almost any other current release. The film can be viewed as a satisfying, vaguely Hitchcockian thriller, but at the same time that it caters to our taste for narrative momentum, it rigorously deconstructs and critiques that very desire. Ultimately it’s a serious inquisition into the morality of cinematic pleasure – a project that could have been somewhat academic, but seems to me in this case almost transcendentally gripping.

Questioning Reality

The film focuses on the host of a successful TV book show (Daniel Auteuil), living with his wife (Juliette Binoche) and young son in bourgeois elegance, who starts to receive a series of mysterious videos, first of the outside of their house, then of his childhood home, and then from other locations. These slowly form a narrative reaching back to a terrible act he committed as a child. I do not think I’m putting out a spoiler by revealing that the film never conclusively establishes the authorship of or strategy behind the tapes – those for whom such absence of closure would be an insurmountable problem might fairly be warned away. In the scheme of Cache, the omission is key to its broader purpose, to focus our attention not on the physical but rather the personal and political responsibility for images, and more importantly for that of the actions to which they relate.

The film is dazzlingly complex, but not in the knowing, ultimately hollow way of an Adaptation - it has the cool, unforced manner of a master drawing on a lifetime of reflection and inquiry. Key to this is how it systematically undermines the veracity of everything that’s presented to us, but without breaking the illusion of an observed narrative – there is no voice over or stepping outside the frame. The very first image in the film, staring at the house from a fixed point on an adjacent street, appears at first to be a normal establishing shot, but we soon discover it comes from a video, and is being watched by Auteuil and Binoche on a TV screen. There will be numerous other instances where something that we initially take as part of the film’s “current reality” similarly needs to be reinterpreted.

Conversely, there are numerous other scenes that appear to be shot from the perspective of a fixed hidden camera, but which are never identified as such. What these images have in common I think (Cache certainly deserves a second viewing, but I haven’t managed to do that at the time of writing) is that their “authorship” in the sense of personal culpability appears to belong to Auteuil, a modest cultural icon of intellectual communication who barely talks to his wife and never accepted responsibility for a self-serving act of years earlier (the fact that he committed this act as a young boy, for whom matters of personal culpability are inherently more ambiguous than for a grown man, is one of the film’s many subtleties).

Act Of Violence

So in a key scene, a character summons Auteuil to his home, where he carries out a startling, entirely unforeseen act of violence. The act is inherently theatrical, planned and orchestrated by the perpetrator. More broadly, the action represents the culmination of Auteuil’s destructive rewriting of the man’s life, both in childhood and in the film’s present. The shooting of the scene suggests a third unseen author (behind a possible hidden camera). Our immersion in the narrative is total – the violent act is as jolting as anything you will see this year. But it thwarts any easy interpretation or reaction.

Other juxtapositions generate further implications and analytical chains. A scene that appears at the time like a dream of Auteuil’s later appears to have been at least in part a flashback to actual events, but to actual events which he orchestrated and which carried grave results – so our initial sense of him as the mental author of the images needs to be replaced with an interpretation based on actions and consequences. A similar progression near the end of the film could be read the same way, but also conceivably as the opposite. The point is that our relationship with the image should never be simple, for the image is always an index of underlying events and is thus inherently moral and political. Our complacency as viewers is likely abhorrent to Haneke. In Cache he toys with it, by feeding us such an immaculate creation, and then deconstructs that creation so comprehensively that the scale of the exercise may at least partly evade us.

Michael Haneke

Haneke has explored this kind of subject matter before – most notoriously in the violent 1997 film Funny Games. In that work, a group of thugs terrorizes a bourgeois family – an inherently familiar exploitation scenario to which the film brings some analytical distance through its continual acknowledgment of itself as a movie. I don’t remember getting too many thoughts out of it beyond the trite and obvious. His most famous work is The Pianist, with Isabelle Huppert as a classical pianist carrying an almost terrifying catalog of sexual and psychological weaknesses. This too, at five years’ distance, might now warrant a second look I think. I remember it as almost impossible to watch after a while, and as such carrying some of the same themes about the nature of cinematic spectatorship that are more fully explained in Cache, but as being ultimately just too hermetic.

His most recent was Le Temps du Loup (shown at the 2003 film festival but otherwise not released here) – a chronicle of society barely holding itself together in the wake of an unexplained breakdown. It’s a more concentrated, in some ways straightforward work, profoundly depressing but carrying some distinct affirmation of human potential.

The examination of Haneke on the Senses of Cinema website is titled “A cinema of disturbance” and opens with the following quote from the director: “My films are intended as polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.” In the past, this has sometimes seemed wearying and rather hectoring, but not in Cache. Among other things, I’ve barely even mentioned how the film’s more formal project intersects with a piercing depiction of the central relationship, nor its use of racism, and the continuing ripples of France’s turbulent involvement in Algeria.

The film is culturally specific – it is, as one sometimes says, very French – and yet of universal applicability. It is as Haneke puts it a polemical statement, but is at the same time as elegant and seductive as Antonioni (whose use of space and architecture and absence came to my mind at times). It offers more than any current film, while withholding as much. It is simply – and you know I don’t use this word very often – a masterpiece.

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