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Conventions Upset

Stanley Kauffmann on Films

(Sony Pictures Classics

THE NEW FILM YEAR BEGAN in at least one heartening way: Daniel Auteuil arrived in a new picture. This French actor is so incredibly credible, so unostentatiously fine, that he makes his way from film to film without attracting the hoopla that attends more consciously virtuosic actors. I mention here only two of his many roles. In The Widow of Saint-Pierre, set on that French island, Auteuil was a nineteenth-century army captain whose spiritual tenor changes while he waits for the arrival of a guillotine to execute a murderer in his charge. In Apres Vous, a farce set in modern Paris, he was a restaurant manager who saves a man from suicide and then is stuck with this troublesome person. Those roles are two extremes in his dossier: there are manifold shades in between.

Juliette Binoche has had a career that is a bit less drastically varied but far from monochrome. In The Widow of Saint-Pierre she was Auteuil’s wife, the chief instrument of his change. In the recent American Bee Season, a film otherwise well forgotten, she played a nutty French wife. Now she is again Auteuil’s wife in their new picture Cachè (Hidden). (The American distributors apparently wanted to send a French signal but felt that they had to explain it.)

Auteuil plays Georges, the host of a literary roundtable that is a fixture on French television. Binoche is Anne, an editor in book publishing. The very presence of these two actors renews an under-appreciated pleasure. Films, despite all the trash that keeps barreling along, provide a chance to watch the evolution of acting talents. The obvious immediate examples are Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, whose recent progress is fascinating. Often we hear plaints about the lack of repertory theater as a chance to see the development and range of actors. Of course films could not compensate for the lack of repertory—the succession of a film actor’s roles is rarely planned. But to sit in a film theater and see Auteuil and Binoche come in, seasoned in our memories with the various human beings they have created, adding in every moment of their new roles to a treasury, is a benison.

Oddly enough, their presence in this picture turns out to be an anomaly. The writer-director of Cachè was the German-born Michael Haneke, now in his sixties, who works in Germany, Austria, and France. His films concentrate on a unique blend of intelligence and violence. Most recently he made The Piano Teacher, based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek (subsequently a Nobelist) that depicted the raging sexuality buried in a respectable woman. For Cachè, Haneke has said that its starting point was "the desire to find a project for Daniel Auteuil, who had suggested a collaboration." This collaboration would clearly be more of an adventure for Auteuil, who was entering new territory, than for Haneke, who was, in effect, just continuing. Haneke also said, "At the same time I had been toying with the idea of writing a script in which someone is confronted with his guilt for something he did in his childhood." That theme is certainly the essence of the picture, but it takes some time to emerge.

The opening shot is of a house in a Paris street, the home of Georges and Anne, a shot in which nothing happens for what feels like more than a minute. Thus we know that this director is going to use time in his own way, not as it is usually calibrated. Later we learn that the opening isn’t even a shot in the usual sense; it is a tape that someone has made.

Georges is soon aware that he is being watched, that his life is often being taped. He tells the police, and they inform him that they can’t do anything about it until something happens—until Georges is assaulted, for instance. He must simply keep living under this mysterious surveillance.

In time Georges follows clues that come up, and eventually he traces them to an Algerian man of about his age, who once lived on Georges’s family’s estate when they were both boys. The Algerian’s parents were lost in the police massacre of protesters on October 17, 1961, and Georges, who was jealous of the other boy, told lies about him so that his parents would send his "rival" away. Thus the other boy lost the advantages of living with this well-off family. Now the Algerian, who is the merest prole, has a grown son: this son is the person who makes the tapes—for his father, who has some sort of revenge in mind.

All these matters are elements of a thriller, but nothing could interest Haneke less. Indeed, he almost revels in the contrast between thriller stylistics and his style. His film moves slowly, almost studiously. For instance, at one point the agitated Georges in his bedroom phones downstairs to Anne, who is in the living room with guests, pleading with her to come up and talk with him. Haneke does absolutely nothing to cover the time lapse: Georges simply waits until Anne comes up. Haneke is telling us obliquely that Georges and his guilt are in a postmodern world—where conventions are suspect—and will not be shoved into film noir regularities.

So an oxymoronic texture prevails. Auteuil and Binoche—and all the other actors—give performances in a realistic mode, while the film through which they move is structured in an anti-conventional way. There is no abrasion: this is not The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a "normal" cast. Haneke’s characters live in the conventional world, but he assumes that they would understand our viewing them through an opposed postmodern temperament.

The climax of the story is horrible, shocking, and is handled quite casually. Afterward, Georges returns home, undresses, goes to bed, and dreams— remembers, really. His dream is of the crucial moment in the Algerian boy’s life for which Georges was himself responsible. Haneke doesn’t then return to the adult sleeping Georges after that last dream sequence. The closing titles ascend over it.

As with much art of our time—music, painting, sculpture, theater—Cachè in a certain way affronts us. Its deliberate contravention of our expectations, and not necessarily stodgy expectations, is part of its intent. The familiar art of Auteuil and Binoche is part of Haneke’s affront. Because of them, we expect something fresh but embraceable. But with their collaboration, almost their collusion, Haneke proceeds to upset us.

A trifle that insists on being noted. Cachè takes place in summer, and through most of the picture Auteuil wears the same lightweight jacket. He is often seen from the rear, and that jacket is never pressed. In a small way those wrinkles are part of the picture’s disguise—its deceptive nod to familiar realism.

This article appeared in the February 6, 2006 issue of the magazine.