Thriller, Hold the Thrills

'Caché' is worth noting--but not necessarily watching

Michael Haneke is easily one of the most interesting and intelligent filmmakers working today. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he doesn't seem to think that all the problems of film have been solved. Haneke still strives to understand the formal constraints of the media, to address his films as films.

Mostly, what he's interested in is the relation of the audience to the picture. In Funny Games, the most horrifying and unpleasant movie ever made, Haneke created terror and disgust without showing any on-screen violence. Everything about that film was designed to frustrate an audience's expectations of a slasher film, and to rob the film of any possible enjoyment. Please, do not go see that work of extreme genius. You will regret it.

He took up a similar problem with The Piano Teacher, probably his most acclaimed movie. In that one, he did the almost impossible: He made kinky sex seem uptight and gross. It would be hard to think of perversion as in some way hip after watching Isabelle Huppert's bloody self-mutilations and her incredibly distasteful attempts at raping her own mother. The Piano Teacher played games with an audience's understanding of eroticism, delivering it, but making it both terribly real and terribly unpalatable.

With Caché, he's on to even bigger fish: What is it that makes a movie entertaining at all? You know when he finds it, he's going to take it away.

The film starts with a very long static shot of the exterior of an urban home. It turns out to be a surveillance tape of sorts, and it's been anonymously delivered to Georges (Daniel Auteuil), a television talk-show host, and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche).

The two watch it for some time, puzzled as to why anyone would be filming them. More tapes arrive. The couple begin to feel paranoid and claustrophobic, and they worry about the safety of their young son.

Soon, their suspicions begin to poison their marriage. Georges decides the filming must be linked to a terrible childhood misdeed, but he withholds this information from his wife. He investigates the mystery and deepens the distrust between them.

Then their son goes missing, and panic sets in.

In many respects, this sounds like a conventional thriller. The problem is that none of it plays out in the expected manner. Not that there's a shocking surprise twist or anything: In fact, that would be the expected manner. In a thriller, we expect to be thrilled. In a suspense film, we expect the suspense to pay off in action or surprise.

But instead, almost nothing happens. The events portrayed are largely mundane; the explanations for most of what goes on are simple, the kinds of things that would actually happen. Most of the couple's fears are unfounded.

And yet, something terrible is afoot. It's just not the sort of terrible thing that normally gets filmed. It lacks meaning; it's unsatisfying, and it's not really related to the story of the protagonists. It's as though the camera has been following the wrong people around, as though we're watching extras as they walk in and out of another movie.

Of course, because this is a thriller and a suspense film, at least of sorts, I can't tell you what's really going on. But if I didn't want to break my critic's oath (The first rule of Critic's Club is: You do not talk about spoilers; the second rule of Critic's Club is: If your Critic's Club dues are more than two months in arrears, you must reapply to both the regional and national offices of Critic's Club before resuming any ordinary membership activities, except under a waiver from the director or acting director of your local Critic's Club chapter), I'd just go ahead and say, because what happens is sort of irrelevant.

Sort of. But that's just it: The vast majority of the film simply isn't about the story. In one segment, more time is spent on the drive to the important scene than on the scene itself. There's a long sequence of dialogue about matters unrelated to anything that happens in the film. Even the exposition is pointless: It offers no payoff in terms of plot advancement or satisfaction of a mystery.

It's an ingenious ploy. Haneke knows exactly what the audience wants to see, exactly what the audience is afraid to see, and exactly what would surprise them, and he presents almost none of it. Which in itself is sort of surprising, but not in a jump-out-of-your-seat sort of way. More in a scratch your head and go "hurnhah?" sort of way.

He's aided in this diabolical task by a great performance from Daniel Auteuil. Auteuil has a style that is both intensely mundane and intensely engaging. It's like if you could watch Napoleon or Jesus while they were scratching their butts. Senseless, but compelling.

The rest of the cast is also good in the way that only French actors are good. I think they come from a completely different acting planet than Americans, a strange and forbidden world where no one is named "Keanu" or "Tara."

But the great acting and the thoughtful filmmaking aside, this is an intensely boring movie. It's almost an exercise in dull. Actually, it is an exercise in dull. Haneke is always asking how much an audience can take. With some of his films, it's how much tension; with others, how much revulsion. With Caché, he asks how much nothing we can stand. As a result, he's made a film well worth talking about, but not so great for watching.