Caché (2005): Voyeurism and the Art of Challenging Passivity

Written and Directed by Michael Haneke
Starring Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, and Maurice Bénichou





There are certain conditions that one takes for granted often when watching a film, certain elements are tacitly acknowledged as being constant and consistent in order to facilitate the reception of the work. Many conventions of cinema – its employment of a consistent system of visual language, its reticence to dramatically manipulate temporal structures beyond familiar narrative strategies, and its given acceptance of the medium through which it is transmitted – work to render the experience of viewing a film largely passive. A film is an artistic object generated by a team and given to the viewer in a manner which largely prescribes their experience of the piece; the point of focus of the viewer, the angle from which they see events, indeed, what is seen and what is unseen, is dictated by the director. In many ways viewing a film is a more constrained and passive experience than engaging any other narrative or visual medium.

The perceived passivity in receiving a film can be allegorically connected to the passive reception of larger transmitters of collective narrative that filter through class and history. Passivity may also function as an insulating and distancing agent for a subject who desires to be disentangled from the darker aspects of history; insulated by their education and middle class and the passing of time, people may allow their passivity to generate a sense of being free from a responsibility for past actions, divorced from any implication of accountability. So too does the passive viewer of a film grant itself an antiseptic distance that prevents its culpability from the content being depicted on screen. These distinctions, however, are illusory.

In many of his films, Michael Haneke works to undermine the perceived unaccountability afforded by middle class pretensions, by being an aesthete, or scholar, or artist. There are darknesses in the recesses of society that sprout tendrils through the cracks; the repressed always returns in some manner. In his film Caché, Haneke constructs a film around public literary critic and television host Georges Laurent, Daniel Auteuil, as his family begins receiving VHS tapes that show his house under surveillance. Georges’ comfortable life is interrupted by these tapes that document the coming and going of himself as well as his wife Anne, Juliette Binoche, and their son Pierrot. The police can do nothing to help the family unless the person taping them does anything more threatening than simply watching. As in physics, the tapes generate an observer effect, which is to say that simply knowing that they are being watched changes the behavior of Georges and his family.

This element of surveillance wedges tension between the married couple, their complacent state of being together cracked open, exposing trust issues Georges holds when the tapes escalate, showing his childhood home, and Georges outright withholds his suspicions of who may be responsible from his wife. The tapes lead Georges to the small apartment of a man who he knew in childhood, who he suspects is the one sending the tapes, the son of an Algerian family who worked for his. The man’s, Majid, Maurice Bénichou parents went missing after the Paris massacre on October 17th, 1961, during which over two hundred Algerians were killed on police order, their bodies herded and dumped into the Seine. Following this, Georges’ parents considered adopting the boy, however they were dissuaded from this course by the lies and stories invented by a young Georges, jealous of their esteem of Majid, then, still, an Other to him.

Despite being raised in orphanages and foster care as a result of young Georges’ short-sighted and selfish decision, Majid claims to have no knowledge of the source of the tapes. After Georges confronts Majid in his apartment, a tape of the encounter arrives at Georges’ house, as well as at his agent’s desk. Shortly after this, Pierrot goes missing and Georges brings the police to Majid’s apartment, still suspicious of his activities. The boy turns up the next morning, having spent the night at a friend’s without telling his parents. Majid telephones Georges at work, inviting him to his apartment to tell him what he knows about the tapes, but instead Georges is present while Majid commits suicide by slitting his throat with a straight razor. Later, Georges is confronted by Majid’s son while at work and refuses to accept any responsibility for the man’s actions for a second time. The film ends with a now infamous shot of a schoolyard and an improbable meeting between characters.

Haneke manipulates the viewer’s perspective throughout the film in such a manner that attention is called to the activity of watching a film. From the film’s very first shot, Haneke deconstructs any notion of perspectival stability. The first shot is a long static shot establishing the Laurent household. Haneke holds the shot before having his characters speak over the scene. As they speak, however, the image on the screen begins to rewind before Haneke reveals that the image we have been seeing is not an objective shot establishing a location, but rather, the tape that has been sent to the Laurent’s. By doing this, Haneke obfuscates the viewer’s perspective, undermines their ability to passively accept the visual information being given, and renders each subsequent long and medium shot in the film – of which there are many – suspect. Are we seeing another tape or something being experienced by the character? Can we trust what is being on screen to be objective, as long shots are so often perceived as?

This foregrounding of the concern of video – what it means to play a film and how this activity makes the viewer perhaps more complicit than they would like to think in what they are viewing – is a gesture that makes the activity of watching a film explicit and renders the viewer culpable to what is being depicted on screen. The veil of passive irresponsibility is removed. Haneke also consciously employs ambiguous long takes throughout the film, burying the actual subject of interest in his shots among a crowded area – the film’s final shot especially. The viewer is directed to pause their own experience of the film to search out characters, to rewind a scene to watch it again to determine what has happened, or to whom. Through this strategy, Haneke is able to draw a direct connection between the activity of Georges, as he manipulates his mysterious tapes, and that of the viewer, navigating their way through Georges’ story.

Georges’ story, his interactions with Majid in particular, is open to a vertical reading that allows for the two men, shared history and all, to represent the historical tensions between France and Algeria. Each of these interactions is structured around the past and guilt; Georges’ attempts to elude the implications of, and responsibility for, his past actions on the life of the other progressively speaks more loudly to the guilt he feels for his actions. Haneke can be seen to be critiquing the reticence of the French government to admit their own guilt in the Massacre here. The film’s colours also subtly lean toward this allegorically nationalistic reading of the events. The Laurent household, its communal living spaces, are starkly white, filled with books and other bourgeois accoutrements. Here the connection between the France’s middle class’ pretense of innocence and lack of responsibility. After witnessing Majid’s suicide, however, Georges retires to his bedroom, an internal and private chamber, which is almost entirely blue. The internal, i.e. mental, space both of Georges and, more generally, France, is uniformly the colour most aligned with sadness, the guilt of the atrocity repressed to the space of the unconscious mind. When the film’s employment of stark reds in the illustrations that accompany the tapes, and the shocking arterial spray from Majid’s self-inflicted wound, is considered, the film’s three main colour motifs form two extremes of intense blue and red mediated by the white of common living areas. These colours also comprise the French national flag.

Having already implicated the viewer in the action of the film through the sympathy of their video watching activity with Georges, Haneke’s critique extends beyond the world of the film and into the world of the viewer. Caché functions as a pointed critique of the passive reception of art and the inability of the individual to take ownership of its historical realities. Beyond the scope of its critique of the French government, and its people’s, reluctance to admit to the atrocities it has committed, the film posits an always present voyeur, a conscience, that will remind one of its deeds in the future. The film’s final shot insinuating that this voyeur is perhaps not entirely external, but rather, as a conscience, something implicit in us as we move abstractly through time – something, appropriately, hidden in plain sight.


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