Caché (Hidden) has every ingredient for art-house insufferability. It's about upper-class Parisians. Its 118 minutes pass by without soundtrack music to break the icy still. And its oblique, new-model mystery plot yields no overt solution just clues peripheral enough to feed the obsessiveness of net-heads and other species of the tragically idle.
It'd all be easy to dismiss, were it not so damned astute both thematically and politically. Filmmaker Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Code Unknown) has made Caché a guessing game that, unlike so many others of its ilk, actually has something to say and says it in a way that is utterly of the moment. Obviously aware that home viewers are his real audience, Haneke makes them as dependent on the rewind button as his lead characters.
That would be Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), a well-to-do husband and wife who, when first we see them, are reeling from the discovery that some unknown assailant has been videotaping the exterior of their house and leaving the evidence on their front porch. (Yes, it's essentially the setup from David Lynch's Lost Highway, but without a pasty-faced Robert Blake skulking around to make us feel meta-squirmy a few years after the fact.) Panicked re-viewing of the tapes reveals no hint of who could be making them or how; in time, they're joined by anonymous phone calls, crude drawings of bloodied figures and videos of other, equally significant locales.
This enigmatic campaign of terrorism puts a predictable strain on the couple's marriage, especially when Georges begins to formulate his own theory of who the culprit might be and elects to withhold that information from Anne. Meanwhile, their mopey son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), has wide latitude to nurse his own festering resentment, at one point going missing for an entire tense evening. Maybe too much surveillance isn't this family's problem after all.
The theme of rigorous examination pervades every corner of the film: Georges is a TV talk-show host who leads his guests in verbally exhuming the corpses of literary lions like Rimbaud. Yet Haneke's aim is far loftier than lampooning the fixations of effete snobs. Georges' investigation forces him into a belated reckoning with a long-ago transgression that not only impugns his own character but reflects an uncorrected failing of his entire nation. That shame-ridden back story is directly connected to current events, making Caché the avant-garde equivalent of "message" cinema. Sure, there's plenty of room to jeer at the unrepentantly overt scene in which Georges and Anne bicker away while news of international disturbances flashes by unheeded on their TV set. But how many times have you been in that living room yourself? How many times was it your own?
Proceeding from an assumption that no one is innocent, Haneke works hard to erase the distinction between observer and participant. We sometimes wonder if we're witnessing events from the traditional omniscient perspective, or if the screen has instead been filled with the contents of one of those surveillance videos Georges and Anne are watching from a point beyond the frame. Stationary shots are drawn out to maddening lengths, only to be frozen and sent shuttling forward or backward without warning. It's intentionally confounding and all the more fun for it a more purposeful gloss on that old-wave film-school folderol that reflexively chastises movie audiences for expecting visual satisfaction, let alone entertainment.
The film ends with one such extended take, a seemingly innocuous long shot that in fact holds a final, vital key to the mystery. Even that clue, though, is open to interpretation, readable as an expression of hope for future generations, an admonition that no one can be trusted, or an admission of mass guilt. It's an apt metaphor for an era in which every action seems to receive intense scrutiny yet every late-breaking bulletin is inherently subjective. Who watches the watchmen? Somebody with a heart of TiVo, apparently and motives we just can't pierce.