Michael Haneke is not the first writer-director to present us with a portrait of a couple whose comfortable existence is transformed into a paranoid nightmare by the discovery that videotapes are secretly being made of their lives. Ten years ago, David Lynch played with the concept briefly in Lost Highway before detouring into territory considerably more surreal and over-the-top.
To my knowledge, Haneke is the first to build an entire film from this premise, however, and the unsettling effect of Caché (originally entitled Hidden) is the direct result of the fact that it is rooted in the everyday. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) Laurent and their teenaged son live in a book-lined townhouse on a Paris side street.
This townhouse and ordinary street are the first things we see as the picture begins. The credits roll. People come and go. Cars pass by. Instinctively, we regard this as a traditional establishing shot. Any minute, we expect, the scene will change and we'll find ourselves inside the home being introduced to the movie's principal characters. But the scene doesn't change. We continue to watch the house from a vantage point across the street.
Suddenly, the scene rewinds and we realize that we are in fact already inside, watching what turns out to be a videotape of the home's exterior along with its perplexed occupants. Who has made this strange tape, and what is the motive behind making it and then leaving it on the couple's doorstep?
These are questions that may never be fully answered in the course of the 120 minutes to come. What does become increasingly clear, on the other hand, is the impact this odd bit of domestic surveillance has on its subjects.
At first the husband and wife are united in terror. They are freaked out, but they are freaked out as victims facing a common threat. Then another tape arrives. This time the structure recorded is Georges' childhood home. No comments are made in the videos. Nothing is edited. Someone, for some reason, simply wants the Laurents to know they are watching - and possess knowledge of their personal histories.
The husband's, at any rate. The next tape is different. It's not a recording of a building but of a journey by car down suburban streets and, ultimately, into an apartment complex. Little by little, the viewer begins to suspect Auteuil's character knows more about the tapes and who might be making them than he's letting on. We're given reason to believe Georges has concealed secrets from his childhood, and that these might have some connection to the mysterious videos.
He hides it from his wife, for example, when he follows the path shown on the latest tape, a path that takes him to the apartment of someone he knew as a boy but who, it turns out, is unlikely to be the person responsible for the recordings. Imagine the wife's surprise when the next video arrives and it documents the secret rendezvous between her husband and this figure from his past. Needless to say, the revelation does not bring the two closer; it only raises the levels of stress and suspicion that pervade the house. Things just get odder from there.
If you like your mysteries all tied up with a bow, Haneke's will likely leave you frustrated and looking for closure. The movie seems to move away from the possibility of resolution with every passing moment. The mystery deepens as leads turn into dead ends and the chasm between husband and wife grows wider.
Cache is a masterfully crafted generator of all-purpose dread, a psychological thriller that's all psychology and no thrills. Except, that is, for the thrill of watching a filmmaker and cast doing something new, and doing it exceedingly well. Haneke's latest may be an exercise in cinematic minimalism, but it will creep you out to the max.