At first I thought of writing a proper review of Michael Haneke’s CachÃ© (Hidden) but I don’t feel up to it. What’s great about the film is that it produces affective blockage on every level. It doesn’t offer the viewer (or the characters) any way out. The protagonists, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), are intellectual yuppies just like the target audience of the film, just like me. Indeed, whenever I saw their Parisian apartment — in which much of the film takes place, and which is presented to us (like everything else in the film) largely in long shot — I felt a bit of sadness and envy and guilt, because everything is so perfect: meticulously neat and clean, with lots of space, sleekly minimal furniture, enormous entirely filled bookcases, a roomy kitchen with lovely appliances doubtless purchased at the French equivalent of Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel, and up-to-date technology including an enormous TV/video screen. They give perfectly tasteful dinner parties in the dining room, and work comfortably in the large central space. It’s just like what my home is supposed to look like, if only I were ever to grow up (which, considering that I am in my early 50s, i.e. just about the same age as Auteuil and his character, I evidently never will). Of course, the camera eye is so distanced, so cooly observant, that it makes this ideal bourgeois space feel utterly oppressive (as undoubtedly it would feel to me if I actually had it — which doesn’t stop me from guiltily feeling that I ought to have it).
CachÃ© is about the invasion, the porousness, of this seemingly perfect space. Georges starts to receive videotapes, from an anonymous source, they are left on his doorstep, which show him that his house is under surveillance. Nothing really happens on the tapes — we just see people walking by the street outside, as well as Georges and Anne leaving the house in the morning, or coming back in the evening. But their mere existence is disturbing. The long shots from the surveillance footage are indistinguishable from the long shots that Haneke himself uses throughout the film; indeed, in the opening shot, and several additional sequences throughout, what we think first is the camera’s “objective” viewpoint turns out to be that of the videotapes: we only discover this when one of the shots that fills the screen is suddenly paused, or put into fast forward or rewind. There is no ontological difference between the diegetic space — yuppified Paris — we are seeing as viewers of the film, and the video/surveillance space that is captured on tape within the diegesis. Indeed, there is no ontological difference between the spaces of the film and the video, and the space that we, the viewers of the film, ourselves live in. We never discover who sent the tapes: indeed, the narrative is so constructed as to make the question of “who sent them?” impossible to answer. It’s not just that we are not given enough information to find out the culprit; it is rather that, from within the film’s own premises, in terms of the naturalistic world the film sets up, it is utterly impossible for the tapes to have been made at all — there is no way anyone could have done it. This impossibility (combined with the almost complete accordance between the tapes and Haneke’s own cinematic style) suggests that the condition of being under surveillance — indeed, the whole condition of liberal complicity and guilt that the film explores — is not an empirical matter, so much as it is a transcendental condition of late-capitalist social life.
I have no desire to rehearse the plot of CachÃ© here. Let’s just say that things escalate, as the tapes go on to show Georges his childhood home, and eventually lead him into a confrontation — no, let’s say rather a failed confrontation, a refusal of confrontation — with his past. This “missed encounter” raises a maelstrom of issues involving class, race, and hypocritical liberal guilt and denial of guilt. Georges’ bourgeois comfort is entirely connected with, and directly based upon, class privilege and racism. This is the case both structurally and personally, both cognitively and affectively, both socially in general and psychologically in the deepest levels of Georges’ own inner life. Georges’ personal guilt and complicity might seem at first to be just an allegory for the more general social condition; except that it is worked through so intimately, with such rigor and depth, that it becomes simply inescapable. Haneke, with his camera’s cool surveillant distance, takes a sadistic pleasure in the spectacle of Georges’ squirming — and the viewers’ squirming-by-involuntary-identification — through a series of denials, evasions, lies, and semi-confessions (both to others and to himself). Georges’ and Anne’s perfect bourgeois marriage decays into (or is revealed to have always been) a venomous battle of wills and egos, just barely hidden beneath the glittering surfaces of perfection. Georges’ and Anne’s relationship to their 12-year-old son Pierrot is also savaged: he is sullenly indifferent to them, and they are utterly clueless and uncomprehending about him. The bourgeois nuclear family is a nasty affair, though its relationship to the social world outside it is even nastier. Georges is implicated (emotionally and morally, though not legally) in another person’s (a working-class Arab man’s) miserable life and eventual (on-camera, in the single most horrific scene of the film) suicide, and we see him getting more and more panicky and self-righteous as he denies the guilt which is his objectively, and which he evidently does feel on some level (as his increasing desperation to escape it indicates to us). The film leaves Georges wallowing in his guilt and misery, but also hunkering down in the class and race privilege, which he so reflexively takes for granted that he never once questions it, nor even has the ghost of a suspicion that it exists.
And Georges’ position is also that of the viewer (who is structurally, a priori, an affluent white male, regardless of who is actually watching the film). We are made to feel guilty and complicitous, while at the same time we are given no way out from this position, and no release even from our own being safe because of the unquestioned privileges that people less fortunate than us do not have. Indeed, we are shielded from consequences because we are, after all, watching a film, this is not happening directly to us in “real life.” Despite the fact that “real life” itself is revealed by CachÃ© to be no more (as well as no less) “real” than a video. Which means that, whatever we understand intellectually, on the affective level we end up sharing Georges’ self-protective sense of unquestioned privilege, as well as his sense of guilt.
In this way, CachÃ© simultaneously abuses and flatters its audience. And I think that the flattery (rather than the abuse) is the nastiest thing about the film. From a political point of view, after all, guilt is just about the most worthless and useless affect/emotion there is. Nobody has ever questioned their privilege, or even done anything decent, out of guilt. Oh, lots of white people “identify” with “minorities” out of guilt, or give to charity (Live 8, anyone?), or mutter pious platitudes and express their support for “identity politics” of various sorts, which allows them to be self-congratulatory about how radical they are, when in fact they aren’t. Indeed, many people of power and privilege positively get off on being made to feel guilty, whether it is the oft-repeated apocryphal story of wealthy CEOs getting release by being abused by a dominatrix, or the more common everyday spectacle of white suburbanites feeling cleansed after getting a good scolding (followed by absolution) from Oprah (or white people with more intellectual/political pretensions getting a good scolding from bell hooks). I do not claim to be exempt from this whole process.
And this is exactly what CachÃ© does to/for its viewers. Or better, it indeed exposes this mechanism of flattery-through-guilt; but without offering any escape from it, and even without quite criticizing or critiquing it. As if that were just the way it is: which indeed, it is. This is what the obvious question about Haneke’s own position comes down to. (Is he claiming exemption from the condition that he otherwise shows to be universal among people of privilege? Well, yes and no. That’s an evasion, of course, but the evasion itself is the point). What’s most powerful about the film is that it not only decrees guilt, but cranks the guilt up to a self-reflexive level: the guilt is reduced or managed by the flattery and privilege that we retain while observing all this; but such a meta-understanding itself creates a new, higher-order sense of guilt, which in turn is cushioned by a new, higher-order sense of self-congratulation as to our superior insight, which in turn is an unquestioned privilege that, when comprehended, leads to a yet-higher-level meta-sense of guilt, and so on ad infinitum. There’s complete blockage, no escape from this unending cycle. The experience of the film is one both of self-disgust and of a liberation, through aestheticization, from this self-disgust. The latter is what makes CachÃ© truly insidious, in an almost Bataillean way.
There’s a long shot/long take at the very end of the film, in which — foregrounded in no way, so it is easy to miss — amidst a whole crowd of people doing all sorts of things, we see some sort of contact between two of the minor characters (as far as I could tell, it was Georges’ son Pierrot and the son of the Algerian suicide) that suggests even new levels of complicity and uncertainty. I think that this only reinforces the film’s overall coldly delirious deadlock. The more explaining we need to do, the more we are trapped in the film’s (and society’s) self-reflexive spiral of guilt and privilege. The film offers no way out, because it never breaks with its sense of privilege, no matter how unwarranted it shows that privilege to be. The creepiness of finding oneself under surveillance, the creepiness of seeing a marriage break down into mutual vicious recriminations, is nothing compared to the creepiness of realizing that one still has one’s shield of privilege despite these intrusions, and that the facade of bourgeois marriage will survive everything that’s going on underneath.
Footnote: I think that some sense of this ethico-political mise en abime is what explains Armond White’s otherwise bizarre review of the film, in which he blames Haneke for exploiting the Third World yet again under the guise of supporting it, and for lacking the alleged “complexity and brilliance” and moral clarity of Spielberg’s Munich. White’s adoration of Spielberg is reprehensible and unconscionable, but the reasons he hates Haneke are pretty much identical to the reasons I consider Haneke is one of the best and most important European directors working today.