Don’t trust what your eyes are telling you. Look beneath the surface. The title tells us this. The opening sequence spells it out. And the closing sequence repeats the message with a dose of painstaking subtlety.
Auteuil’s Georges and Binoche’s Anne inhabit a strange, attractive Parisian property. Most of their life seems to take place in the sitting room/ diner downstairs. This contains hundreds of books, a mighty television set, the desk at which Auteuil works and some comfy sofas. This is the vortex of the family home, although the family rarely congregate here. Instead, it becomes the space of anxiety where Georges and Anne watch the mysterious videos which document their lives. Then there’s upstairs, the bedrooms. Their son’s bedroom is normal. Posters for Eminem. A computer with a games console attached. But his parent’s bedroom is like a cave. Dark, bare, sparse. It’s a space dedicated to sleep. No hint of pleasure. The seeming normality of their lives is not sustained in the bedroom. Instead, the room reveals the emptiness of their marriage.
When Caché came out the world and his wife revelled in the film’s blend of Hitchcockian mystery and rigorous austerity. Overlooking the way the filmmaker offers moments where he foregoes subtlety in favour of a broader satirical tone. As Georges edits his TV discussion about Rimbaud, he urges the editor to skip the conceptual stuff and get to the bit about his homosexuality. His colleagues are congenial media types who tell outlandish stories and exude a breezy self-confidence. These are the taste-makers, the very people who are no doubt lauding Haneke’s work to the skies, praising his rarefied critique of modern morals. At the same time, the TV shows Italian troops in Iraq, as though to emphasise the way in which the real barbarities of Western ‘Civilisation’ continue to occur under our noses. Will history judge the intervention in Iraq any differently from the French misadventures in Algeria? The ironies lurk beneath the surface in a world where the comfort of those-who-have shrouds the suffering of those-who-do-not.
Watching the film a second time, nearly ten years later, the shock effect of Majid’s suicide is no longer present. Instead, perhaps, it becomes easier to dwell on the curious intimacy of his relationship with Georges. A friendship formed at the age of 5 retains more power than any created in adulthood. The two men have already learnt almost all the lessons that life will have to teach them when still in childhood. The cliff that divides people from different social and political backgrounds as well as, one assumes, the pain of loss. Perhaps it’s because he’s sought to repress so much of his childhood that Georges cannot relate to his own child. Georges emerges as a pathetic figure, metropolitan man stripped bare. For all his intelligence he has no idea how to cope when the going gets tough, he’s soon out of his league. Which puts him in the same category as the father in Funny Games and the other in Time of the Wolf, whose good natured intentions are blown away before he can even start the negotiations. There’s something Nietzchean about Haneke’s critique of modern masculinity (which recurs again with the White Ribbon’s narrator). Apart from its commentary on the value he places on life, Majid’s suicide is the kind of carnal act of which Georges would be incapable. Modern Europeans might wear black but beneath the pseudo-existential veneer there’s pastel-coloured underwear. They don’t know how to kill goats and their primary response to any kind of threat is to get stressed out and discuss it with their partners.
The irony in all this is that Haneke is a man who makes intellectually provocative films. He values the intellect as a weapon with which he seeks to skewer the society he inhabits. And he does so successfully. The neurotic chattering classes lap up their medicine. March against the war or the dictaduras. Meanwhile, the men and women of action launch wars and dismiss art as a symptom of weakness. They would walk out of Caché before they had had the time to realise the director was subverting the artform with his opening shot. Which is why Haneke’s cinema is one of the the most definitive examplars of the crisis of Western society, intellectual or otherwise. Post-existentialism, we don’t know whether we should be reading Zizek, watching football, speculating on the stock exchange or the property market, or fighting for a cause we don’t believe in. Going to the cinema and watching a film by Haneke allows us to both indulge our Western decadence and suffer barbed criticisms for our indulgences at the same time. It’s a modern church, where our souls are allowed to engage in the struggle for meaning for a couple of hours before we head back towards our humdrum, DIY normality. Where risk is something that occurs on television, in a land far removed from our own.