There may not be another film screened in Memphis this year that balances formal control, political/cultural content, and personal intrigue as well as Austrian director Michael Haneke's Caché (Hidden).
Set in an unnamed French city, this allegory of domestic insecurity, cultural privilege, and selective public memory centers on an educated, upper-class nuclear family whose comfortable existence is threatened.
It's a classic film-noir scenario, a la Cape Fear, but given a European art-film twist. Aside from one truly shocking moment of violence, the scenario never resolves itself through conventional cinematic action. Depending on how the viewer interprets the film's final scenes, it may not resolve itself at all.
Caché opens with a static long shot of an urban residence. It holds the shot for several minutes, with minimal action. Two things are accomplished here. One is that Haneke is encouraging -- even training -- the viewer to let his or her eyes roam across the frame. This style of active watching is central to how Haneke wants you to think about his viewer-implicating film. Getting used to picking apart the on-screen information will also pay off later, especially in a final shot that offers a potentially crucial clue.
The other purpose of this static opening take is to lull viewers only to shock them when the image crinkles and begins to rewind. It turns out the image is from a surveillance tape, shot from in front of the home of Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the host of a TV literary talk show, and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a book editor, and delivered anonymously at their door.
After this creepy beginning, the surveillance just becomes more disturbing. More tapes arrive, sometimes wrapped in crude, violent drawings. There are phone calls to Anne and cards sent to Georges at work and the couple's 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) at school.
Initially, the family thinks the source of the harassment might be a prank from one of their son's friends or an obsessive fan of Georges' television show. But gradually, Georges senses that it's the result of a repressed memory coming home to roost, linked to an Algerian man Georges was cruel to as a child.
And, at this point, though the plot is never fully resolved (depending on what you see and what you think about that final shot), Caché deepens into something more profound than a mere thriller. Is Georges a victim or a culprit? Is his selective memory, suppressed guilt, and mix of contempt and fear emblematic of his country? His race? His class?
There's much in Caché that's culturally specific to France, with a reference to a largely covered-up early '60s massacre of Algerian immigrants by the French police figuring prominently and with the film arguably presaging the country's culture-clash riots last fall (Haneke was named best director at the Cannes Film Festival last summer) in much the same way that late-'80s Los Angeles gangsta rap presaged the Rodney King riots. But Caché implicates Western culture more broadly in a way that would have been highly relevant even before 9/11 and the Iraq war. In the present context, it's an intensely provocative and thoughtful film.