Saturday, January 14, 2006

Caché: Suspense Unfettered by Closure or Cell-Phones

It’s been a while since I heard an audience scream like that.

Not like the thrill-shriekers that love horror films like they love roller coasters, but like an audience watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955)—exactly like that—and you either have seen the movie and know exactly what I mean, or it would be disastrous for me to spell it out.

Watching Michael Haneke’s latest Caché (Hidden) (2005) is very much like watching a Clouzot picture, but Haneke differs in one crucial way: there is no resolution to the story, no villain to pin it on, no explanation to the mystery. If you are one who needs this type of closure, then Cache is not for you. Haneke provokes us through his unconventional storytelling and demands that we appreciate the vibe of mystery for its own sake. “It’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition-derby world,” writes Stephen King in the afterward to his novel The Colorado Kid.

King’s words ring ironic throughout Caché, because the films characters are unable to live with the mystery, and their wits are whittled away by the invisible hand of a blackmailer. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) begin receiving videotapes of them entering and leaving their house accompanied by child-like drawing of bloody faces. The threat is there, but not explicitly. Neither husband nor wife can figure out what the blackmailer wants from them, nor what he is blackmailing them about.

Is it even blackmail? Another videotape shows Georges’s childhood home; still another a hotel room. Georges tracks down the hotel room and discovers a childhood memory long forgotten: Majid, the son of two servants that worked for his family. Georges surmises that Majid and his son are behind these videotapes, but where is the proof, and where is the motive—and what are they after?

The suspense genre has been constantly evolving over the past fifty years. Think back to Diabolique: the mystery is resolved. Virtually all mystery/suspense pictures before the 1960s had a large degree of closure. Beginning in the 1960s, the genre began to show signs of dissent. Blow-Up (1969) leaves us wondering if he really photographed a murder, or whether it was David Hemmings’s imagination. Haneke continues the evolution by making the threat real, but by leaving the characters so far out in the cold that there’s little chance they’ll ever find the right path. The right path, in fact, never appears in the movie: all trails are as futile to Haneke.

The way the film develops, then, is through Georges’s psychological reaction to the tapes. Unsure of their intended meaning, his mind goes rampant through his subconscious, digging up all the guilt and shame that he had hidden for so long. The footage of him walking in and out of his house is meaningless, harmless, really, save for the fact that someone is nearby with a camera. Much like in Rear Window (1954) when Scottie’s gaze is returned by Thorwald, Georges’s subconscious becomes his outer-shell. His and Anne’s need for a reason, for a motive—needs much like the audience’s—surfaces their own lack of trust in one another.

The reason why Haneke is successful with Caché is that he hits at such a mundane vulnerability in us: there is nothing spectacular or fantastic about the terror; in fact, it seems to be created as much by Georges as it is by the mysterious cameraman. The mere sight of himself on film sets off a whole globe of paranoia.

Stephen King continues musing on the nature of mystery in his afterward: “Wanting might be better than knowing.” With cinematic villainy becoming increasingly more deranged and pathological, too, the stakes for the victims is changing as well. The innocent girl played by Ida Lupino in Out of the Fog (1943) that is being harassed by John Garfield is no longer the case: innocence no longer exists, except in the minds of others. Georges proves that he finds himself guilty; his struggle for exoneration is as much about proving his innocence to his wife as it is proving himself guilty to himself.

Haneke’s direction is fitting. He utilizes static shots that leave the audience wondering, “Is this going to be a videotape or not?” Flashbacks, too, are subtly intertwined as to avoid easy pinpointing. With the villain a filmmaker himself, Haneke has fun toying with the audience as to who is filming which shot.

It is impossible for people, when talking about Caché, not to mention the end of the film. And it’s no wonder—Hakeke is prevocational up until the last shot. People in the audience began shouting, “What? Is that it?” It’s been a long time since audience reaction after a movie could drown out a cell-phone. Speaking of which, not one went off during the entire movie. It’s been a while since that has happened.


Pacze Moj said...

You bring up a great parallel between Blowup and Caché. At least for me, both films are satisfying in part because they're so infuriating; I crave the resolution even though I know that the film will be worse if one is given.

While watching many bad suspense films, I don't care what'll happen, or who was behind what. While watching Caché and Blowup, I wanted to know. Perhaps part of the tactic of both films is to deny the viewer the closure that separates him or her from the film -- to force the viewer to actually think about the film after it ends. They sure accomplished that for me.

Stephen Snart said...

I think you hit the nail on the head by comparing Cache to Diabolique. The one pivotal scene in Cache was one of the most surprising scenes of the year and this kind of genuine shock is rarely seen outside of a Clouzot picture. Diabolique has long been one of my favorite films and I think it raises interesting questions about cinematic thrills and the horror genre. Most people would probably not consider the classic a horror by today's standards but I am quick to cite it as one of the scariest films I've ever seen. I find this provocative because the film really isn't scary until one particular scene late in the film. Yet this single scene is much scarier than all the cumulative "boo" moments in your standard slasher flick. Just like Cache does 50 years later, Diabolique sets up a scenario involving real humans to create its scares rather than manufacturing impersonal jumps and twangs.