French thriller Caché rachets up the voyeuristic suspense sans payoff

By Matt Johnston

Georges and Anne Laurent are not very exciting people. He hosts literature discussions on television. She plays the smiling host at parties. As portrayed by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, they are normal people. Their home does not seem to have any windows—just scores and scores of books lining every wall. They are insular, intellectual people.

Caché opens with a long take of their townhouse. As the credits appear, we stare, expecting to see something, anything. But we see nothing more than the ordinary goings-on of a quiet street. Then the image is rewound, revealing that we have not been watching their house, but a recording of it left anonymously on their doorstep.

Apparently, someone finds the Laurents very interesting indeed. And suddenly, their lives have a little excitement. “Little” is the operative word here. Caché is a very slow film that observes quietly but rarely acts. On more than one occasion, the camera just sits, recording a situation from afar without giving us any cues as to what we are supposed to be watching. This latest work from director Michael Haneke (Code Unknown, Funny Games) is a thriller posing as a minimalist art film. The themes allow us to simultaneously enjoy and fear voyeurism. But the style suggests van Sant’s Gerry or Altman’s The Company, neither of which bring the word “thriller” to mind.

Caché is a meditation on the anonymity of community living and the helplessness we all face. The Laurents go to the police with their concerns and are told that nothing can be done unless a threat is made. The drawings they receive of a stick figure vomiting blood do not, I suppose, constitute a sufficient threat in the eyes of the police. The real horror, though, is that Georges and Anne would not even know about the observations being made except for the good graces of the voyeur in question. Caché asks how often we think to close our shades, or consider what we say in conversation on the street. Our privacy is maintained not because we actively keep strangers out but because we trust others not to care to look in.

Caché demands gut reactions. One scene is so shocking, the audience recoiled and emitted the loudest gasp I have ever heard in a theater. (I’ll give you a clue: The red streak on the movie poster represents a liquid. And it is not raspberry jam.) Another scene features a genuine rooster-beheading from beginning to end, performed by a child who does not seem to be quite finished with the bloody axe. (Nor does he seem unfamiliar or uncomfortable with having blood splattered all over his face.) As he approaches the camera, I would hazard a guess that no one in the audience is meditating on voyeurism.

Although these moments of shock are few and far between, they pack a big enough punch to make the film feel exciting and tense, even as it is composed almost entirely of silence and banal conversation. There are no chase scenes, no explosions, and, perhaps most unsettling, no real conclusion. An unspoken contract exists between a mystery and its audience that a payoff will be made in the end to compensate for slow sections in the middle. The lack of speed is, we trust, being used to build proper tension for the big bang of an ending. Caché has the very antithesis of a big bang. When the credits roll, there has been no exciting payoff.

More importantly, there has not even been elucidation. We are not entirely sure which characters are still alive in the end, let alone which of them were culprits. In the final shot, we see outdoor steps crowded with people. I am not entirely sure what happened, what I was supposed to see, or even if there was anything to see. The event I perceived suggested possible resolution to the mystery but also introduced new questions. Maybe that is all wrong. Maybe the shot is actually videotape, demonstrating that the mystery is far from solved. Or perhaps the filmmakers are just toying with us, showing us a shot of a random group of people and letting us stare until we convince ourselves that we recognize someone. In any case, do not see Caché for the payoff. The tense silence constitutes the experience itself, not the build-up.

Do I recommend this movie? That’s a difficult question. Often when I have a strong opinion about a film, I think that (in some sense) those who have a different opinion are wrong—that if they would just watch more closely and think more carefully, they would come to agree with me. But Caché is targeted to a specific taste. There is no virtue in liking or disliking it. It is a popcorn thriller made to get under your skin. If it fails to get under your skin, I can hardly blame you. There is no danger of not getting this movie, only of not feeling it.

I felt it. Thus, I think it is excellent, especially because it serves that neglected sect of moviegoers who appreciate a good scare but have tired of seeing Jason, Freddy, the Jigsaw Killer, or whoever else jumps out unexpectedly in front of a stupid teenager wandering around in the middle of the night. But, if staring at crowds, squinting, and waiting (for nothing, in many cases) does not appeal to you, you may want to consider Match Point as a more conventional alternative, with the best payoff of the year to boot.