“Caché lays bare a heavy psychological truth about the collective unconscious — without submitting to another perspective, we may not be able to recognize and acknowledge the abject parts of our own selves, even when they are clearly presented to us, hidden in plain sight.”
Cinema offers an experience unlike that of any other visual art form. Watching a film requires complacency in its audience; you must submit to the perspective from which images are presented and perceive those images as they have been conceptualized and crafted by the filmmaker. Often in commercially motivated films, this imposition of a foreign perspective is not intentionally brought to the forefront of narrative and technical composition; it is instead subjugated to other, more conventional priorities. However, Austrian auteur Michael Haneke is one of that subset of directors who are reflexive in their craft and whose works offer a larger commentary on the power of the medium and the cinematic experience. His 2005 film Caché provokes the subconscious through unconventional and unanticipated filmic techniques, most notably his affinity for utilizing manipulative and unreliable perspectives. Increasing the psychological involvement of viewers, Haneke’s film deals with imagery and subject matter that are considered unspeakable or inexpressible in human existence; by forcing his audience to confront and consciously consider those repressed or hidden facets of life, Caché lays bare a heavy psychological truth about the collective unconscious — without submitting to another perspective, we may not be able to recognize and acknowledge the abject parts of our own selves, even when they are clearly presented to us, hidden in plain sight.
The opening shot of Caché establishes the critical framework through which the viewer must approach the rest of Haneke’s psychological thriller. The film opens with an exterior static shot of a house tucked between the geometric facades of other buildings along a small French street. The house that is centralized within the frame is almost entirely hidden behind a large bush that covers all but the front door. After the shot has lingered for nearly a minute while the credits are slowly typed across the screen, a passerby crosses through from the right side of the frame, confirming for the viewer that the image is recorded footage, not a still image. The credits fade and the shot continues; a woman exits the front door of the house and leaves the frame; a biker zips down the alley past the position from which the camera must be mounted. Then, after the shot has endured nearly two and a half minutes, two distinct voices emanate from somewhere offscreen, questioning and discussing the image: “Well?” “Nothing.” “Where was it?” “In a plastic bag on the porch.” The voices are immediately jarring to the viewer, causing her to worry: “who is referring to what I am seeing and why can I not see them speaking?” This worry sparks the first glimmer of mistrust in Haneke’s lens.
What at first appears to be an establishing shot for the narrative of Caché is slowly revealed to be quite the opposite as it lays the foundation for the anxiety the film instills. The camera finally cuts to a closer shot of the front door of the house, from which a man emerges to enter the street and investigate the Rue des Iris, the side street from which the façade of the house could have been filmed as in the opening shot. He says, thinking out loud in the same voice we just heard from offscreen space, “He must have been there,” and then the camera cuts back to the original shot. The true nature of this image is confirmed for the viewer (of Caché) when it is then fast-forwarded, demonstrating that it is in fact an intra-diegetic film that the viewer is watching along with the characters whose voices initiated the puzzle of perspective in Caché. This uncertainty in perspective is the first symptom of the anxiety that Haneke instills in his audiences. The unexpected opening to the film jars the audience into a self-consciousness that undermines the reliability of the camera’s gaze; by forcing her recognition of the cinema’s ability (and apparent tendency) to manipulate perspective so subtly and without warning, the viewer can thus never be concretely sure of whose perspective, if anyone’s, the camera is occupying. It immediately establishes distrust in the camera, causing the viewer to question the origin of every shot and to suspect that any given shot could reveal itself to be something other than what it initially appears to be.
We soon learn that the voices belong to our protagonists, Anne and Georges Laurent, an upper-class French couple living in Paris with their teenage son Pierrot. The voyeuristic opening shot is a portion of seemingly harmless surveillance footage of their house that has been anonymously recorded and delivered to their doorstep. Days go by and the intra-diegetic cameraman continues to drop off the unsolicited videotapes, which are eventually accompanied by morbid, childlike drawings that visibly become increasingly personal for Georges. There are undeniable similarities between the brief sequences shown of his dreams, the drawings that accompany the tapes, lending to the viewer’s inkling that Georges may know something about the hidden origin of the tapes. At first, the Laurents have no idea who might be recording and then leaving the tapes, but as the film and the subtle terrorism progresses, it becomes evident that Georges has a potential suspect in mind but is withholding the information from Anne and potentially hiding a deeper, more personal secret, causing tensions to rise between husband and wife. Georges’s strangely cold attitude is suspicious, and incites questions that further the anxiety of the viewer; what connection does he have to the man behind the tapes, and why is he refusing to tell his wife about any of it?
This tension builds throughout the film and is compounded by the anxiety that results from a sense of the uncanny that develops in the spectator through Haneke’s recurring but unpredictable manipulative camerawork. He repeatedly intersperses segments of the anonymous tapes within narrative footage without distinguishing between the two, which deepens the viewer’s mistrust of the image. The film repeatedly presents images that masquerade as straightforward depictions of diegetic action and then, only after a period of some seconds — sometimes minutes — these images are revealed to exist as images within the diegesis: we are watching the work of a diegetic cameraman, and the characters are watching the videotapes along with us. If any shot lasts for too long without cutting, or remains static and unmoving, or refuses to give a close-up of a face, we grow suspect about the origin of the image; when will this shot begin to rewind itself? How far has the diegetic cameraman permeated the space and structure of this narrative? And most importantly for Haneke, who is in control of these images? It is the movement of the tapes, the fast-forwarding and rewinding, that give movement and thus insert subjectivity into the shots. In repeating this decontextualization of the image, Haneke causes self-consciousness in the viewer, a hyperawareness of the ability of the camera to be a multitude of different lenses and perspectives.
The viewer recognizes the repetition of this manipulation, while our protagonist Georges is disturbed by the recollection of repressed images; both instances cause a sense of what Sigmund Freud labels “the uncanny.” In his book of that title, he claims that “there is no doubt that [the uncanny] belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread” (Freud 123). Fear, dread, and uncertainty are all provoked by the opening shot of Caché, caused by the mistrust that the manipulation of the perspective immediately instills in the viewer. Because the opening shot is revealed to be a film within a film, the viewer is jarred from the first moments into a highly receptive position that causes her to be suspicious of the origin of every image that follows. Haneke’s audience immediately learns from the first shot not to trust everything they see, and yet it is the consistently deceiving repetition of this technique that creates the sense of the uncanny. As the viewer learns more details of Georges’s childhood, the sense of the uncanny is clearly affecting our protagonist, and is only strengthened and perpetuated as the film progresses.
When he was a young boy, Georges’s upper-class French family employed an Algerian husband and wife who also had a young son, Majid. After Majid’s parents were killed in the tragic Seine River Massacre of 1961, Georges’s parents took Majid in and raised him, until Georges told lies about the boy and he was finally sent away. Georges told his parents that Majid had been terribly sick and vomiting blood and was likely infectious, and that Majid cut off the head of a rooster to scare him when in fact Georges told him to kill the bird because his parents wanted it dead; both images that uncannily haunt Georges now through the intra-diegetic tapes and his dreams. Because of the political climate of the time, it is presumed that the trajectory of Majid’s life and the opportunities that were available to him were drastically changed for the worst by Georges’s lies. This is obviously a terribly guilt-ridden memory that Georges would want to repress, though it seems someone is insisting on thrusting this abjection back in Georges’s face and forcing him, and the viewer, to confront it.
Julia Kristeva defines and explores this term in her book Powers of Horror. She defines the abject as “a massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either” (Kristeva 2). The abject is a repulsive but definitive part of one’s self that has been repressed or ignored, or simply never acknowledged, as is the case with Georges Laurent. It is therefore that which is “inconsumable” — too simultaneously intimate, familiar, and so disturbingly foreign. Often of a visceral nature, abject imagery startles and shocks the audience before they even have the chance to process and react to it. As we have begun to suspect with the uncanny repetition of Haneke’s approach, it has also become apparent that the simultaneously repulsive and intriguing clips are projections of Georges’s troubled unconscious. He does not want to be faced with the images that haunt him and remind him of a conflicted past, and refuses to recognize and acknowledge the seemingly foreign images and to take responsibility for their unfortunate context and the upwelling of memories. The continual confrontation of these images throughout Caché is troubling and becomes uncanny and anxiety-inducing for both Georges and the viewer. The more he attempts to suppress the skeletons of his childhood and hide the truth from Anne (and himself), the more emphatically Haneke inserts the abject into Georges’s plotline. At first, there is the drawing of a stick figure vomiting blood, which is later compounded by a brief, non-diegetic splice of a few frames of a young Majid vomiting blood. The next drawing is of a beheaded chicken, which conjures the disturbing scene in which a young boy kills a chicken and is splattered with blood while another boy stands by and watches. As the plot unfolds, Georges’s involvement in the memories becomes more undeniable, just like the persistence of the abject material on-screen.
This is Haneke’s infliction of abjection of the self upon Georges; “if it be true that the abject simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the subject, one can understand that it is experienced at the peak of its strength when that subject, weary of fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within; when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than abject” (Kristeva 5). The unpleasant flashes of discomforting imagery are part and parcel to Georges’s identity as defined by his relationship with Majid. Within the sphere of their mutual shared history, the two are inextricably linked because of their entangled past. Georges struggles with recognizing the abject as a product of himself and taking responsibility for his haunted unconscious. He is clearly troubled by his past actions, so much that it seems that Majid is a part of Georges’s very being, as much as Georges tries to avoid, contest, and refute this fact.
The viewer is forced to witness and process this abjection and uncanny anxiety through Haneke’s images in the same manner that Georges is confronted with the anonymous videotapes. Through Haneke’s lens, Caché allows the viewer to experience death, or rather suicide, from the voyeuristic perspective of the hidden camera in a very personal scenario. The viewer is safe from actually having to be present (as Majid says he wanted Georges to be) to endure the physical ramifications of Majid’s suicide, but Georges is not so fortunate. Majid is transformed from subject to object with the slit of his knife, and “the corpse, seen without God and outside of science, the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject.” (Kristeva 4). The shot that conveys the suicide is an unbearably lengthy one, already lingering from a presumably hidden position before Georges and Majid enter the kitchen, and remaining stagnant in the tense moments following Majid’s shocking suicide. The viewer is not only forced to watch the extremely graphic and startling image of Majid quickly slitting his own throat, but Haneke then denies the audience the cut away from the shot that we all so desperately desire after such an uncomfortable scene. Georges’s reaction to Majid’s suicide is perhaps somewhat unusual; he is silent and does not utter a sound, then staggers backward, and then turns away from the corpse entirely as if repulsed by the now lifeless body.
Haneke’s confrontation of the inconsumable is more or less an assault on the viewer’s unconscious, an accusation that Haneke himself admitted to in a 2007 New York Times article. “I’ve been accused of ‘raping’ the audience in my films, and I admit to that freely — all movies assault the viewer in one way or another. What’s different about my films is this: I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence” (Wray). He intends for his films not only to make an audience aware of themselves and their reactions, but also to call into question what it is about the film or the cinematic experience that is making them react that way. Just as Georges is violently confronted with these images, so is the viewer forced to process and consider them and their function within the medium. Thinking further, one wonders how Georges exited the room without having to physically touch the corpse, a task that he obviously would have avoided if at all possible. Majid’s body crumples right in front of the door, as if he wanted Georges to have to be present not only for his death, but for the unpleasant aftermath immediately following it. This is perhaps the closest many will come to encountering death or suicide as a manifestation of the abject.
Haneke emphasizes these often unpleasant moments in order to encourage a reflexive discourse amongst his audience. Ultimately, he wants the viewer to be watching his film (and in the case of Caché, the films within the film) and remain cognizant of his or her reactions to particular stimuli, and then reflect upon what it is about the film or the cinematic experience that elicited that reaction. While presenting a commentary on metarepresentation and self-referential conscientiousness in this film, Haneke manages to accomplish a larger objective that relates to a more universal or collective experience. Though the 1961 massacre of Algerians is not explicitly discussed in Caché other than the brief summary Georges reluctantly recounts for Anne, it is a fundamental component to understanding the full implications of the narrative and presentation of images throughout the film. In an interview with Sign and Sight, Haneke clearly explains that “the film’s main theme is not Algeria. But I was fascinated by the issue of where private spills over into collective guilt. There are black stains of this sort in every country…” (Tageszeitung). The Seine tragedy is a historic event that has somehow been amazingly repressed by the French national public. It is a taboo topic (to use another Freudian term to describe its marginalized position in society) that seems to have been collectively repressed and forgotten by a country full of citizens. The tension between France and Algeria has mostly subsided, but the underlying anxiety between the two populations is undeniable, though so many of the French would like to claim the massacre never even occurred. Caché particularly emphasizes this collective consciousness by offering multiple camera perspectives, compounding the ways in which we witness events and interpret their meanings, suggesting the power of perspectives other than our own to reveal that which we may not otherwise acknowledge and recognize within ourselves.
Haneke reaches the climax of narrative and technical composition in the final shot of the film. After building this elaborate thriller with immensely psychoanalytic impulses and ramifications, Haneke uses every aspect of mise-en-scène to distract viewers in the final scene. Like the opening shot, the camera is positioned in front of a school’s front steps, with little room on either side of the frame. The school day ends, and students trickle onto the steps and move across the frame. What the audience may not see if they are not consciously trying to see something intentional in the image is Majid’s son entering the bottom of the frame, pulling Pierrot aside and talking with him briefly before the two separate and the film ends. This interaction supports a more historic-political reading of the film, emphasizing the brevity of the interaction between the next generation of French and Algerian youths. Their conversation is not restricted from view or made obvious to the viewer; instead, it is hidden in plain sight, amongst the bustling mise-en-scène. This final scene may be the key to understanding the technical agenda of the film. After submitting his audience to a patterned series of uncanny and abject images, Haneke has provoked and nearly trained them to the point of hyperconsciousness in the hope that they might derive some meaning from the last shot.
Ultimately it may be that Georges is Haneke’s representative of the French collective consciousness, the one that refuses to acknowledge the tragedy and his involvement in the events at the Seine River in 1961. Haneke continually forces him to confront the image of his past, an inherent and inextricable albeit revolting component of his psyche. In managing this, the audience of Caché also gets a lesson in how to approach and submit to the power of the cinematic image. By submitting to a perspective other than your own and taking in the images as they are crafted and presented by a conscientious auteur like Michael Haneke, the audience is offered the chance to experience and perhaps gain understanding of their reaction to the subconscious hauntings of a nation. Haneke speaks for the importance of the medium through the metarepresentation of cinema in Caché, demonstrating for open-minded audiences what they may be hiding within themselves if restricted to a singular perspective. The cinema offers a unique experience in which filmgoers may be repulsed, affronted, intrigued, and confused by the presentation of images, but it is the conscious consideration of those effects that is fundamental to confronting that which we may not so easily approach without the buffer of safe distance provided by the cinematic experience.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 123-162. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.
Tageszeitung, Die. “Cowardly and Comfortable.” Sign and Sight 30 Jan 2006: Web. 1 May 2011. <http://www.signandsight.com/features/577.html>.
Wray, John. “Minister of Fear.” New York Times 23 Sept 2007: Web. 28 Apr 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/magazine/23haneke-t.html?ref=magazine&pagewanted=all>.