Michael Haneke’s Caché is one of the more interesting recent French films, even more interesting if you also watch the 20-minute interview with the German filmmaker. If I had more time I’d write a Chronicle on this subject.
Media intellectual Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) finds a series of mysterious VCR tapes of his house and personal activities along with semi-childish drawings of a man with blood on his throat. (The metaphor of life as a video was a striking if easily missed feature of Haneke’s first and nastiest film, Funny Games, in which a couple of satanic young men torture and kill a family for their own amusement; at one point, the woman grabs a gun and points it at the evildoers, whereupon the film “rewinds” and rectifies the situation to the liking of its subject-author). The trail of the videos leads to Majid, an Algerian man whose farmworker parents had been killed in the bloody suppression of an FLN demonstration in Paris in 1961; Auteuil’s own parents, their employers, intended to adopt the young orphan, but Georges (if I understood the film correctly) cut the head off a chicken and blamed it on Majid, who was sent to an orphanage. Georges visits the now grown Algerian in his HLM and accuses him of sending the harassing tapes, of which the latter claims to be totally unaware. But the next tape shows Majid weeping with frustration after Georges’ departure. We meet Majid’s son, who also denies knowledge of the tapes. Finally Majid urgently invites Georges back to his apartment and on his arrival, after swearing he had no knowledge of the tapes, cuts his own throat in front of Georges and dies. Georges steadfastly refuses to feel guilty about any of this; even if he framed the Arab boy, he was a mere six years old at the time and should not be held responsible for the other’s unhappiness.
After the suicide, Majid’s son comes to see Georges in his office and insists on speaking with him, but we learn that his only purpose was to discover how Georges was bearing his guilt–which he continues to deny. The final scene takes place in near-darkness; Georges finally levels with his wife (played by Juliette Binoche, who with dark hair looks oddly like Catherine Zeta-Jones), then takes a couple of sleeping pills and retires to his room, shutting out all the light. This leads him to dream of the day at the family farm when Majid was taken off to the orphanage; we then cut to a long take of students exiting a lycee, in which Haneke pointed out that both Georges’ bratty son and Majid’s son were in conversation, although I could not identify them on my TV screen.
We never learn who sent the tapes. Haneke suggested it might have been one or both of the sons. But clearly that is not compatible with the content of the film; the only possible explanation is that the filmmaker “sent” them; they are a projection of Georges’ guilt. And indeed, Haneke made clear at the outset of the interview that his film was about bearing and denying guilt. In the rest of the interview, he insistently suggested that it was up to the spectator to figure out what was going on; in the final scene, were the two boys conspiring? was the Beur leading the other astray? Was Binoche having an affair with her friend Pierre? It’s all so postmodern.
Yet there is one thing that is not “multicultural” or “undecidable” or “aleatory,” that is not in the film to teach us the “Nietzschean” lesson that truth is whatever we want it to be: white guilt. We don’t know where the tapes are coming from, or even why Majid commits suicide, but we know that Georges is guilty. The Algerian context is projected on the present in a news program that refers to the Iraq war; but even forgetting this overt political analogy, Georges is guilty toward the Arab world, as presumably we all are toward some group of Others. As a German, Haneke has impeccable guilt credentials of his own; the pot that calls the kettle black is well aware of its own blackness. The German filmmaker acts as the Frenchman’s conscience. “We” are all guilty, but “we” is not everyone; guilt is not original sin, but sociopolitical domination, what I have called firstness in other contexts. The son’s utter contempt for his parents, which is very nearly par for the course in the French films I have seen recently, is a visceral moral revulsion. The hope for Europe, if there is any, is that its native sons will repudiate their guilty parents and join forces with the sons of immigrants–not exactly what happened recently in France over the CPE proposal. But purgation is a secondary matter; it’s the guilt that counts. Whence the unexpected absence of violence inflicted on Georges; even Najib’s son, a strapping fellow who could probably whip Auteuil with one hand, suggests that Georges could beat him up because he is the stronger–echoing a similar remark from his father. No burning cars here.
The intimate connection between postmodernity’s denial of “truth” and its fundamental post-Holocaust affirmation of guilt has rarely been made more explicit. As in a novel by Robbe-Grillet, we don’t know if it’s on tape or real or dreamt, but the fact that it is “there” at all is a reminder of an unambiguous event–the killing of 200 Arabs on October 17, 1961 that gives proof of Our guilt, like the bomb in Hiroshima mon amour. This sounds unhappy, and Haneke acknowleged that this is a “sad” film. But it’s really not so terrible. Georges, the allegorical representative of old Europe, winds up in a dark room, peacefully sleeping while the world goes on. When he finally wakes up, there will probably be a lot more Nabils than Georges coming out of that lycee, and they will be unlikely to express their resentment by weeping. Georges might do better to take a few more pills and not wake up at all.