'Cache': A Provocative Guilt Trip With a Hidden Agenda

Daniel Auteuil (with Diouc Koma and Juliette Binoche) plays a French intellectual whose distant past comes back to haunt him in Michael Haneke's unsettling film.
Daniel Auteuil (with Diouc Koma and Juliette Binoche) plays a French intellectual whose distant past comes back to haunt him in Michael Haneke's unsettling film. (Les Films Du Losange/sony Pictures Classics)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

Conscience, H.L. Mencken once said, is that inner voice that tells us someone may be watching.

Mencken knew a thing or two, and he might have been talking explicitly about the life of M. Georges Laurent, of Paris, France, as played by the great Daniel Auteuil in Michael Haneke's disturbing film "Cache."

Someone is watching M. Laurent. The evidence is unmistakable: One day in the mail he receives a videotape. It was taken outside his house; it shows nothing except his own banal comings and goings of no particular import on a day of no particular import.

Yet it has -- how do we say it? -- a power to disturb. Or as the French say: It scares the crud out of him. For now M. Laurent understands that he is under somebody's microscope. Perhaps his life, so exemplary, so successful, so revered, can't stand up to the scrutiny.

Laurent is something of a star; he's a member of Paris's cognitive elite, host of a highly rated public television show on books and authors (!) and a pal of the city's oh-so-sexy, oh-so-French intellectual creme de la creme. He's handsome, has a beautiful wife (played by Juliette Binoche), a handsome son and lives in one of those elegant townhouses loaded with books, magazines, sleek furniture and bottles of liquor. If you walked by, a footsore American tourist on a hot July day after a week of abuse from the French, and caught a glimpse of the place, with its ferns, its serene accumulation of icons of comfy bourgie-intellectual signifiers, you'd think: This Frenchy's got it made.

Yet how fragile it is, how fast it all goes away. The idea that he's just a squiggling paramecium on somebody's lab slide is particularly upsetting to him, and he reacts in the way most intellectuals react when put under physical pressure: badly. He turns morose, flirts with violence, acts irrationally, is brutal to his poor wife. Does he have something to hide? Is all as it seems to be?

Of course, under Laurent's predicament is a secret. His whole life, so it seems, is built on a monstrous lie; it takes merely the barest whiff of pressure for it to come toppling down.

Or does it? Haneke's film, so clinically convincing in so many ways, has a great deal of difficulty overcoming the absurdity of its premise. It holds an adult male and his life at risk based on something he did as a 6-year-old child and it invites us to judge him harshly for his moral failure at that age.

Yes, yes . . . but 6 years old ? Who really can be judged by that standard? Not even the harshest of regimes would hold a man responsible for a decision that essentially ruined another's life at 6.

The reason, of course, is that Haneke is more interested in symbolic realism than in realism itself. His true subject is a particularly thorny European issue, which happens to be colonialism and its discontents. The very young Georges made a decision that destroyed another child's life, and he made it on the basis of his own sense of racial and cultural superiority. You can say: How terrible, how unfeeling. Or you can say: Hey -- he was a kid. But the larger point is the framework in which he made the decision: That wasn't his responsibility, it was his culture's. He was simply responding to the cues in the gestalt, cues that allowed him to view some people more seriously than others.

Thus you must adjust: Laurent's crime is really the crime of being European and conquering people of color. That understood, "Cache" is brilliant. It's one of those icy calm numbers that don't hurry your eye to the central part of the screen. A lot of the times the stationary camera just observes for what seems to be the longest time as you hungrily scan the frame to find something to focus on; Haneke won't focus for you.

There's no conscious manipulation via editing rhythms, sound volume or musical score to make you feel something artificially; feelings arrive entirely from the happenings on-screen and the power of the performances from Auteuil and Binoche.

Auteuil is the rare actor who so roots his work in the authentic, he never seems to be acting in the formal sense of the word. You don't think of it as a performance; he simply becomes, as in this case, an intellectual under pressure behaving badly, clumsily covering a secret. He also communicates the utter sense of violation. His childhood indiscretion was so long ago and so forgotten and now it's back, bringing him face to face with a man he betrayed. He goes through changes. First he's scared, then he's haughty, then he's aggressive, finally he's defensive.

Meanwhile, communications from his stalker begin to accumulate, all of them grotesque -- children's paintings with a bright smear of scarlet for blood in them, presaging the arrival of an almost unwatchable atrocity. Blood is in fact a leitmotif of the film, not merely the blood that courses in veins but the blood of family and culture.

The movie can be dissected to reveal -- as the best thrillers frequently do -- an agenda. It's an extended meditation on the blood ties between colonialists and the colonized, and how they may not so easily be jettisoned when they become troublesome. That's because M. Laurent's secret has to do with his plot against an Algerian boy who lived with him and his parents those many years ago and how, in a fit of jealousy, he drove the hated Other away. Now he has to face the consequences and the consequences are not pretty.

Cache (112 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong violence. Viewers should be cautioned that it shows, explicitly, the death of an animal.

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