We should be mindful of the things we do to other people. Cruelties and lies often come back to be repaid in kind. From bad deeds follow alienation, isolation, and emotional distance.
These are the central themes of one of my favorite films of recent years, the 2005 French psychological drama Cache. Directed by Michael Haneke, it is a serious and intense drama, layered with opaque levels of meaning.
I first came upon this film some years ago, and like to see it every now and then. I suppose it serves as a reminder to embrace good conduct.
The facts of the story are straightforward, and yet maddeningly ambiguous at the same time. We have a comfortable Parisian couple, with their nice apartment. The main character Georges (Daniel Auteuil) has a lucrative job as a television host. He has a wife, Anne, (Juliette Binoche) and a son, but somehow we get the feeling that this is a family that has not really “come together.”
Each person does his own thing, existing in something of a self-imposed shell. This is not exactly an unhappy family, but it is certainly a cold and detached one.
There are vague hints that Georges’s wife is or has been unfaithful. And the adrift son seems bonded to no one at all.
Into this cold, antiseptic family life intrudes a shock one day. A video tape arrives at the house. It is simply a videotape of the house itself; and it was apparently taken to show the house was under observation.
Things gets stranger still when crude, child-like drawings begin to arrive with other videotapes. The drawings depict faces with blood coming out of their mouths, and of chickens being decapitated. We are not sure if these are threats.
What is interesting here–even more interesting, perhaps, than the story behind the videotapes–is the effect of this stress on Georges’s family. In your conventional Hollywood drama, some external threat would of course bring the family together in one strong unit, prepared to take on the world.
But this is not what director Haneke has in mind. He has deeper, more profound lessons for us. He shows us, instead, the corrosive effects that this stress has on the family. The threat represented by the videotapes exposes, instead, the coldness, shallowness, and venality of Georges and his family. An external threat does not bring these three together. It drives them further apart.
As more and more clues are revealed, we are justified in our subliminal dislike of Georges. He is rather a slithery, dishonest sort, never willing to deal straight with anyone, always looking for ways to evade or minimize truth.
It turns out that there is an evil little story behind the tapes. Many decades earlier, when Georges was a child, his parents sought to adopt an Algerian boy (named Majid) whose deceased parents had worked for Georges’s parents. Young Georges did not like having a new foster-brother foisted on him. So he manipulated his parents into having the Algerian boy taken away to a squalid orphanage.
Georges goes on to a upper-class existence; Majid is cast to the bottom of the social well.
It is one of those unpleasant family memories that everyone wishes to bury. Some critics have seen in this story an allegory for France’s tormented historical memory from its Algerian War of the 1950s and 1960s. And I suppose this is one angle of interpretation.
But I prefer a more personal, moral interpretation of this story. Our actions in the past become part of us, and contribute to our psychological make-up. We cannot escape the past. We cannot really overcome it. We can deal with it and reconcile ourselves to it, but we can never really “bury” it.
As much as we would like to believe. The mind remembers all, and forms its own portrait canvases.
Georges eventually finds Majid in a dingy Paris flat. Their encounter resolves little; it only adds to the sense of dread and ambiguity. We do not even know who is sending the tapes to Georges: Majid denies it, and Majid’s son denies it as well. We just do not know.
And this is what director Haneke is trying to tell us: don’t look for absolute truths in matters of this sort. Human drama has many truths: ten, a hundred, even a thousand. There is no absolute truth.
And crises do not always bring a family together. If that domestic amity is built on a foundation of deceit and evasion, then there will be a price to be paid. Some of the most maddening scenes in the film are when Georges’s wife Anne tries to find out from him what the story is behind the mysterious videotapes.
He knows very well who is sending them, but he remains bottled up, seized up with repressed guilt and shifty-eyed evasiveness.
The ending is even more fitting, as it leaves us with far more questions than answers. And this is as it should be. Because nothing in life is delivered to our doorstep, wrapped in a nice, neat package, with a bow on top.
This is a haunting, powerful film, unforgettable in its imagery and analytical intensity.
Because the real emotions of life are turbulent, seething, inexplicable, and often contradictory. There are no neatly wrapped packages with bows on top. There is only ambiguity on top of more ambiguity.
The good that we do, and the bad that we do, live on in the hearts and minds of others, as well as in ourselves. We are composites of these ambiguities.
And where ultimate motivations and the workings of the heart are concerned, we can know some things about some things, but the ultimate truths will always be cloaked in the Unknown.
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