The best thing about Michael Haneke’s Caché is the way it draws on contemporary fears without ever mentioning them. The war on terror has made people feel insecure in their own homes. Will you get anthrax in the mail? Is there a wiretap on your phone? If it seems like a stretch to project American phobias onto a French film, keep in mind that they get much of our media and have had analogous situations of their own. Besides, fear is in the eye of the beholder.
It isn’t a biological weapon that arrives on the doorstep of Georges and Anne Laurent (French superstars Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) but a videotape, seemingly filmed from a static camera just outside their house — a camera that, judging by the footage, Georges walked right past without noticing. The tape itself is unintimidating. But then another one comes, wrapped in what appears to be a child’s drawing of someone spitting up blood. Anonymous phone calls are received, and Georges and Anne’s 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), gets a similar drawing delivered to him at school. Subsequent videotapes showcase Georges’ childhood home, then a totally new location.
A similar setup was used in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (which also featured a character with the last name Laurent). But Haneke’s agenda is more straightforward. Lynch used the device as a gateway to a surreal world, where it served as a metaphor for jealousy. Haneke’s world obeys the standard laws of nature, but he brilliantly keeps the audience as on edge as his characters by integrating the tape footage into his film. A scene from Georges’ point of view might suddenly have the familiar fast-forward or rewind bars show up to make us realize that we’ve actually been watching the anonymous tapes. It’s a simple but vaguely disorienting trick.
The real threat, of course, is not what’s actually on the tapes but the force behind them and the way that paranoia can drive wedges among family members.
Someone from Georges’ past was traumatized in 1961 when French police killed a large group of Algerian protesters. Georges is convinced that this is the man out to get him, but we’re not so sure. For one thing, he’s the only obvious suspect. Those expecting a definitive answer on that subject, however, might want to rethink their expectations.
Caché is the rare movie in which less is indeed more. The story mostly consists of simple interior shots in a handful of locations, with no musical score, minimal sound design and one basic special effect (if it even qualifies as special). But it lacks nothing and arguably achieves a greater creepiness than a story with, say, dungeons and boogeymen.
To say more about why the film works would risk revealing too much. Not knowing is what makes people afraid, and not knowing where Haneke is going is a large part of what works. It isn’t your typical scary movie — there are no “boo” moments — but it may gradually creep you out, perhaps even more after it’s over.