I wasn't prepared for how powerful Caché turned out to be: it's been a long time since I've heard an entire cinema gasp in genuine shock at one sequence and it's almost as shocking second time round on the small screen when you know what's coming. On the surface it's a fairly typical French film, but it's what's under the surface that really counts. That said, it's still a film that many dismiss as empty or dilettante filmmaking, either because it's more concerned with the fallout its mystery provokes than offering a solution or because it's just trendy liberalism. It's certainly not for all tastes.
The central premise is simple enough, as Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche's comfortable bourgeois life is put under increasing strain by a series of videotapes of the their house accompanied by childish drawings of bleeding faces. The tapes show nothing: their menace comes not from their contents but the fact that they exist. Since the drawings have to come from someone who knows the character's past, is it Auteuil's Georges' own conscience that is sending them? Or is it the filmmaker himself to provoke a reaction from his characters? Significantly the tapes are all shot on a fixed camera mounted on a raised tripod in what must be a clearly visible position. The appearance of the second tape blocking a doorway that was clear earlier in the shot offers little else in the way of a possible natural explanation.
But the tapes are really just a Maguffin, a narrative device to push the characters and plot forward. This particular lost highway leads into the past, and France's inability to apologise for it's colonial past (specifically Algeria), something it absolves itself of all guilt from by repeating the mantra that it was all in the past when they were much younger and knew no better, as if that wipes out thousands of futures denied or stolen. It's no accident that the film revolves around a failed adoption that mirrors France's own failed colonisations.
While the characters are believable rather than Godardian or art-house archetypes, it's easy to ascribe a wider allegorical purpose to them. Georges is a reflection of France itself, outwardly respectable but denying his past and not acknowledging guilt over Algeria (significantly, Auteuil was born there). He simply doesn't want to talk about it. He doesn't even connect emotionally with his present, let alone his past, mother, son and wife all a part of his life he really has nothing much to say about. Nothing is ever Georges' fault, not even a near accident crossing the street. He blames a cyclist for his careless mistake, showing that he has learned nothing from his past but is still repeating it. As with the opening of Haneke's epic of non-communication, Code Unknown, he is oblivious to the wider implications of what is to him a trivial moment or of the possible consequences of his moment of self-righteous anger.
Just as he edits out anything 'too theoretical' in his TV show, he tries to re-edit his own past (just as the French government did last year when it passed a law that "the benefits of French colonisation in foreign countries should be recognised and integrated into school programs.") but can't do it quite so easily. Not that he doesn't try. Both of Georges' initial flashbacks are dishonest reinventions of memory: Georges turns his childish conspiracy against one character into his victim terrorising him, reinventing his memory and history to reflect his current interpretation of events and reality. It's this reinvention that allows him to honestly claim without any real evidence that he is being terrorised - "a campaign of terror" are his exact words - by the person he has wronged, actions currently being replayed in Iraq. To France, the atrocities inflicted on the Algerians don't matter - it's the threat to Georges that, in his childlike ignorance, is all that matters and must be dealt with radically.
Indeed, even though Majid and his son are French-born, both are regarded as foreigners, intruders. Yet neither conforms to the stereotyped 'Arab' image: polite, sad, very pointedly not aggressive, yet still regarded purely as a threat for being goaded into an action for which they were punished.
Binoche can be seen as the French people, kept in the dark, asked for their trust although trust is not extended to them in much the same way that Blair in the UK asked for people's trust over the intelligence that led to the UK's involvement in Iraq yet never revealed nor explained his reasons beyond his contention that he was convinced it was "the right thing to do, but it's time to move forward." But if Binoche is the French people, she is no more admirable herself. Both ignore the violence and torture that plays unwatched on a TV in the background in one scene and concentrate on their own immediate priorities.
I still haven't had time to fully digest all the implications of the ending - is he committing suicide himself? (Probably not since he feels no guilt.) Is the hidden shot of two children talking to each other in the final shot a sign of complicity or the way that each generation is doomed to suffer for the sins of the father? Is it the next tape to be sent? It's almost a Rorschach Test for the viewer: how you interpret it says more about you than the film.
Haneke makes no secret that he isn't interested in providing answers but rather is forcing questions on the viewer to make them more of a participant: "I'm not going to give anyone the answer. If you think it's Majid, Pierrot, Georges, the malevolent director, God himself, the human conscience - all these answers are correct. But if you come out wanting to know who sent the tapes, you didn't understand the film. To ask this question is to avoid asking the real question the film raises, which is more: how do we treat our conscience and our guilt and reconcile ourselves to living with our actions... I look at it as productive frustration. Films that are entertainments give simple answers but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think."
Decent extras on the DVD and Blu-ray include making of documentary Hidden Face, interview with Michael Haneke and trailer - but don't look for any answers there.