Michael Haneke's new film is about the two ways in which we experience life through the media: we learn from its truths, and we are influenced by its lies. Or perhaps the film is about something else – if there is one thing of which the filmmaker is fond, it is open endings. To answer one critic's question for the director, which Haneke would not acknowledge: Yes, the film could be about the Iraq War. But couldn't the insistence to dwell on the war apply such a relationship to most recent films?
The issue of open-ended stories and the ambiguous responses they allow is a frustrating problem in cinema. Aside from alienating audiences in need of resolution, they are sometimes so unconditional that all meanings are negligible. Inconclusiveness is also easily criticized as evidence of either a conceit or a cop out, and often there is doubt that some storytellers wouldn't be better off releasing a blank page or screen if they're inclined to be so indefinite.Caché is not that broad, but rather is a multi-layered look into the home of Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) and their son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky)--a family weighted by secrets, lies and assumptive prejudices. The opening shot, a metaphoric view of their home surrounded by level upon level of elaborate housing developments and apartment buildings, gives hint of the film's multifaceted complexity. Haneke doesn't just communicate anything to be left up to the viewer; he stacks up many ideas for the viewer to pick through.
The literal contemplation is with the mystery of who is terrorizing this family with puzzling videotapes left on their doorstep. The first cassette is innocent although creepy, consisting of the single view that opens the film. Subsequent tapes are more intimate and implicit, accompanied by violent, crudely drawn pictures, suggestive of an American thriller plot. As accessible as the movie seems, Haneke constantly redirects the narrative away from such conventions via the reality of police (un) involvement and paranoia-induced red herrings.
Georges decides that someone from his past is responsible and confronts Majid (Maurice Bénichou), an Algerian who as a boy was adopted by Georges' parents. It turns out that Georges has some repressed guilt about wrongs he committed in his youth, and he thinks that Majid seeks to blackmail him. The development of their relationship is easily seen as an allegory for bigger issues of French and Algerian diplomacy, forever marred by a history that cannot be forgotten nor completely forgiven.
The problems with mitigation are not specific to France, though, and the characters can represent anything more personal to the audience, whether it is 9/11, slavery or the Holocaust. Some might even consider the recent release of Maurice Papon after only six years of prison due to health problems. The former French cabinet minister was convicted in 1998 of sending more than 1600 Jews to their deaths during World War II, a crime for which he has supposedly never shown remorse.
Papon, who served as Prefect de Police from 1958 to 1968, also figures into the massacre of October 17, 1961, where hundreds of demonstrating Algerians were killed, mostly drowned, by police in central Paris. That tragedy was covered up for many years by the state-run media, keeping the public in the dark by not releasing any facts or footage. Haneke was informed about the massacre by a 1992 documentary called Drowning by Bullets, and he was inspired to write Caché, using the calamity as its story's foundation while also referencing it as a moment where truth was hidden by the media.
This idea of the media's duty to show the truth is paralleled through the marital conflicts of Georges and Anne. A few times Georges is caught in a lie later exposed through the existence of the videotapes, saying one thing to his wife who then discovers the opposite on screen. He claims to lie or not tell her things because they do not concern her, but in doing so he fails to establish his trust in her and his trustworthiness to her.
The strange cassettes are reminiscent of David Lynch's Lost Highway, which also begins with Bill Pullman's character receiving tapes showing the exterior and interior of his house. During a police investigation he claims an aversion to video because he likes things, "how I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened." Georges, and the dishonest media, would probably paraphrase the quote as, "How I say things happened." Most people don't have the luxury of such mysterious revealing, but the film isn't exactly a proponent of spousal spying. The point is in the importance of cameras as witnesses, not as surveillance but of news.
When the media lies to the public, or manipulates the truth using selective editing, it can have a very negative influence. When the videos change from single shots to involve cutting, compiling only a few simple locations, they direct Georges' thoughts toward memories of Majid. The images are powerful enough to arouse his suspicion without any literal indication. Eventually paranoia seeps in and Majid winds up blamed for more than the creation of cassettes and drawings.
Haneke appears to follow Godard's theory that every edit is a lie. Caché primarily consists of unbroken scenes made up of only one shot each, and at one point Georges, the host of a television talk show, conceals part of a guest's statements by cutting a segment in post-production. The filmmaker's preference for long takes allows for less manipulation and at the same time gives the audience a great appreciation for Auteuil and Binoche's uninterrupted performances.
Whatever additional observations exist in Caché, personal connections may be as responsible for individual experiences with the film as they are for Georges' intolerance, so that Haneke turns his judgment of the character toward the audience too. Interpreting the film as an allegory for the Iraq War creates both an understanding of how Americans were duped into supporting the conflict and also an acceptance of being no better than the duped for making such an easy association. The filmmaker, himself, is not even innocent of his own contempt, his work not free of lies (edits) or hidden truths (open endings). But surely he is aware of his own power to present fact and falsehood and it would be fair to assume that Haneke wishes to learn from and be influenced by his own media right along side us.