No mere whodunit, this haunting French puzzler builds an atmosphere of free-floating dread.
Guilt is an emotion that can be triggered by nothing more than a long silent stare. Why are we under observation? What did we do wrong?
In "Caché" ("Hidden") the leading characters squirm under the fixed gaze of an unseen voyeur who sends them ominous videotapes of their home's exterior. At the same time they are under surveillance by writer/director Michael Haneke's coolly detached camera, which regards them with the stillness of a viper preparing to strike. The film is loaded with disquieting moods, sinister hesitations, scenes of borderline banality and a single, shocking eruption of traumatic violence. Call it Designer Noir.
Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the host of a literary TV talk show, and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), a publishing executive, apparently have nothing more to apologize for than a posh lifestyle and a superior, entitled, slightly contemptuous manner. Their elegant façade begins to crack as their anxiety over the anonymous tapes grows. Are they being blackmailed or threatened? For what misdeed? By whom? Is a kidnapper targeting their brooding preteen son?
When childish drawings of bloody faces and butchered livestock begin to arrive along with the cassettes, they report the harassment to the police. Without an aggressive action, however, the authorities can't respond.
The mystery ignites a domestic psychodrama. In scenes that look and feel like being inside someone else's migraine, Anne and George hurl accusations and denials. Each suspects the other is suppressing secrets. They feel that somewhere in their life are awful problems they can't deal with openly. Georges begins to explore his own past for clues, and seems to find a lead pointing to a long-lost childhood acquaintance. Speaking to him only triggers more questions, pushing the search for truth into sociopolitical territory where issues of European history are as important as individual motives.
Auteuil embodies his character's smug egotism as if he slept in the man's skin. The deflating of Georges' self-importance seems almost as painful to him as the notion that his family is under attack. Binoche, usually cast as a spirit of hope and love, is appropriately brittle and harsh here.
Haneke's characters are never easy to like, yet it's impossible not to empathize with their anxiety. It's his mastery of the craft, both visual and sonic, that pulls viewers along in its grip. Haneke's goal isn't to present a jigsaw mystery that is closed when the missing piece is put in place. Often there's a feeling of letdown when a whodunit is solved because the dark dream is over. Haneke wants to keep us in a trance state of danger and intense emotion.
Watch the long, busy final shot of students streaming out of their school and if you are observant or lucky you'll see an essential clue. "Caché" solves its mystery up to a point, but there's no conclusion. After the house lights rise, the dream keeps going.
*** out of four stars
Rating: R for brief strong violence.
Where: Edina Theater.