Caché ★★★★★

I originally downloaded this as part of "Michael Haneke" week of the 2017 Film School Dropouts challenge, but didn't get around to watching it until this month. Yesterday I famously posted a scathing review of Haneke's usually adored The Piano Teacher, which ended up generating more comments than nearly anything else I've ever published at Letterboxd; so that had me itching to jump right back into the Haneke pool with my next movie-watch, and specifically to take those commenters' advice and watch something not so relentlessly bleak as his most famous movies like Piano, Funny Games and Time of the Wolf. After reading through the synopses of his remaining movies, I opted for his 2005 Caché, which sounded like something more up my alley (a thriller about a man who stalks an upper-middle-class couple in Paris by videotaping them outside their home and then mailing them the videotapes); and I'm glad I did, for this turned out to be a very different Haneke than I was used to at that point, who turns in here his first and maybe only movie with an overt political message.

For to be clear, the techno-stalking turns out to not really be the point (not-so-spoiler alert: we never learn who the stalker is); the point is that the videotapes lead our put-upon husband Georges to a ghost from his past, an Algerian child who was orphaned when his parents were killed by French fascist troops during the 1961 Paris riots as part of the Algerian War of Independence, and who was randomly adopted afterwards by Georges' wealthy rural parents as a gesture of white guilt. As he eventually explains to his horrified wife (Juliette Binoche, here mostly for star power rather than having anything particularly interesting to do), eight-year-old Georges was unhappy with suddenly having to share his bedroom with this weird brown kid, so made up a lie about him and got him shipped off to an orphanage just a year after he arrived, which as Georges justifies was technically the immature act of a small child, yet also was clearly an early example of the white privilege and entitlement that would come to define his adult life as well, as the wealthy and famous host of a Dick-Cavett-like TV interview show featuring intellectual guests.

Lots of theories abound at Letterboxd over who the videotaping stalker might be who instigates Georges' unpleasant confrontation with his own mini-colonialist past. Is it the Algerian's teenage son? Is it Georges' own white teenage son, who clearly becomes more and more disgusted with his father the more of this story comes out? Is it both sons working in Millennial cahoots? (Most people miss it, but the two sons are shown to actually know each other, during the movie's end credits shot on the steps outside their school.) Or is the whole thing a metafictional act, much like how the killers in Funny Games keep directly addressing the audience, and it's actually supposed to be Haneke himself breaking the fourth wall to insert the videotapes into his fictional characters' lives? (This is the theory I personally like most; after all, the consumer-level home videocamera used to shoot the stalker footage is the same exact camera Haneke uses to shoot the omniscient, "fictional" part of the movie; and the stalker's camera shows up in a bunch of places where the stalker should not rationally have access to, including the Algerian's apartment on multiple occasions.)

None of this matters, though, because Haneke clearly means for the stalker to be a metaphor for the early 2000s in general when Caché was made, a period when France finally started looking back for the first time with a cold, dispassionate eye at its shameful colonial history (a history which lasted much, much longer than any other European nation, and which therefore has taken France as a society much longer to confront and come to a resolution about). The "stalker" at the heart of this movie is no less than the collective French conscience itself, and the "videotapes" are nothing more than the 21st century saying to them, "Hey, remember that time when you slaughtered tens of thousands of subjugated people of color for no particular reason, long after you could blame it on the outdated notions of a historical past, including millions of your white neighbors forming a secret army and trying to assassinate your own President rather than let him grant independence to your last colonial holding? So recently that color TV and spaceships existed while this was going on? Hey, remember that?"

Granted, you have to know a fair amount of French history to understand all this, which is why Americans have so commonly reacted to this movie with befuddlement ("I don't get it! This movie wasn't scary at all!!!"); but if you do understand the basics behind the real history being alluded to here, this makes Caché one of the most intellectually interesting movies of Haneke's entire career, unfolding itself like a Chinese puzzle box until finally revealing the devastating message at its center. That's way more interesting than sadistic piano teachers and murderous teenagers, which is why I strongly recommend Caché for those like me who have otherwise been disappointed by the most high-profile films of Haneke's oeuvre.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews