20 April 2008

Michael Haneke: evil genius?

The following is a review of Michael Haneke’s film Caché, which a reader has sent me. I thought it was interesting enough to reproduce in full.

I saw Haneke’s Funny Games (the German-language original) a couple of years ago. I found it deeply disturbing, and in a way that seemed completely pointless. It simply seems to want to make the viewer feel angry and miserable, but without using the emotions generated by this in any useful way. I thought it was horrible, so wasn’t overly keen to see Caché. However, my girlfriend had seen it (the French language class at the girls’ school where she works had gone to see it) and had made it sound a bit intriguing, so I thought I should finally take a look at it, especially now that Haneke is back in the news with the remake of Funny Games.

Given my experience with Funny Games, I was expecting Caché to be hostile to its bourgeois central characters, perhaps inviting the audience to enjoy their being tortured (in this case psychologically, rather than physically) as with the earlier film. However, this doesn’t really happen to anything like the extent I expected, and the film as a whole wasn’t particularly shocking at all, certainly not by comparison with Funny Games.

In many ways, Caché is a brilliant film, profound and deeply moving. But in other, subtler ways it is a flawed, pointless and perhaps even despicable film. It is brilliant in the sense of being a technical tour-de-force. For example, it has a very clever and original opening sequence. The camerawork is amazing, and constantly plays with the viewer’s perceptions and with his distinctions between reality and what the camera records, but without becoming self-referential. So it enhances the interest of movie watching, but without the tedious postmodern idea of making the movie make statements about movie-making itself. Watching it on a PC (as I did), as one window among other windows, was even weirder as you get an extra layer of detachment added.

In one sense the film is stunning, to the extent that the story is almost irrelevant. There is plenty of tension of a cool, sophisticated kind, so it almost doesn’t matter whether the story works — which, in some respects, it doesn’t. The film could easily have been something about the guilt of the middle class, and the debt they owe to people they have exploited, and a rant against the wickedness of bourgeois ethics. (We have seen plenty of films or TV dramas like this in Britain, for sure, many of them produced by Channel 4.) In fact, it is not really like that at all — it is much subtler.

So on one level the film is rather satisfying. It is technically excellent, it strums the viewer’s feelings expertly like a guitar, but also with a very light touch — even in the notorious scene where a man unexpectedly slits his own throat. But there is also something hateful about the atmosphere which Haneke creates, and it is this which provides the link to Funny Games.

Some critics have, predictably, praised Haneke for exposing the smugness of the bourgeoisie. I think this is overstated. Haneke does not exactly show his central characters as smug, but rather as flawed in the way we are used to from other contemporary presentations of the middle class. There is, however, something smug about the movie, and it’s not the middle class characters: it is Haneke himself. (Also perhaps, those members of the audience who congratulate themselves on ‘getting’ the underlying ideological messages, whether these are really there or not.)

While the film-maker’s perspective is kept more in the background in Caché, we still get a sense, as in Funny Games, of a ruthless manipulator behind the scenes, sadistically grinding our noses in the harshness of what is being presented. You can argue that this is ‘realism’ — after all, reality is often grim, and largely arbitrary and purposeless, so if you just let the camera record what it will, it is bound to give you a grim and cynical picture. But this is misleading and itself manipulative. We are shown what appears to be reality (in the DVD commentary, much is made of the idea that the film explores the relationship between reality and point of view, but this seems like affectation — Haneke’s films are clearly intended to be ‘realist’) but it is a carefully selected reality, designed to make an emotional point.

The trouble is, the emotional point isn’t turned into any kind of intellectual point, or if so, it is a point that is so superficial that the effect is somehow dumbing. Having been exposed to all the tension of Caché, is the message really supposed to be, as some critics have written, that the French were beastly to the Algerians?

The whole film is about Georges’ (Daniel Auteuil’s) guilt, and about his feelings of guilt. But for a film with such a massive weight of tension and drama, the central guilt in question seems too trivial. And this is where Haneke’s manipulativeness and sadism comes out again. The vacuity of the film, the fact that it has this very strong sense of agony but not a sufficiently weighty story or moral to support the agony, creates a feeling of hopelessness in the viewer which has no possible resolution. In a movie or novel where there is more symmetry between emotions and story, the audience can ‘use’ the emotionality to feel some kind of conclusion, but here it is denied this experience, which is frustrating.

Perhaps in that sense it is true that the film is, after all, crudely anti-bourgeois: it generates an expectation that someone should be feeling guilty, even when there isn’t a very good reason for doing so.

Another thing I found irritating about the movie was that it portrays Anne, the wife (Juliette Binoche), as being in a constant state of supposedly justified umbrage. It reminded me of the Mother character in Malcolm in the Middle. It’s a bit as if women these days have an automatic role as the aggrieved victims, without there necessarily being any obvious reason why this should be so. Somehow we (the audience) accept that it is right for them to behave in this way. They are presented not as individuals, but as representatives of their gender, or of society as a whole, expressing a resentment the justification of which is more often implied than explained.

By the next day after seeing the movie, its subliminal messages had started to penetrate. I began to suspect that Haneke actually wanted his viewers to despise the couple (Binoche and Auteuil). His way of achieving this was remarkable, and consistent with his deadpan style. I realised that, in spite of being incredibly normal and average, and reacting in perfectly normal ways to being put under pressure by the anonymous spy, they (the couple) actually had no redeeming features. They were presented as complete blanks, their only distinguishing characteristics — and here one had to look rather carefully, because the clues, like all the clues in the film, were presented very subtly — being negative ones (e.g. Binoche at one point casually referring to her son as a ‘macho prick’; Auteuil’s flattened reaction to the suicide).

In this way, Haneke achieves the remarkable feat of making it seem that his victims deserve what is happening to them, even though on the face of it there really isn’t sufficient justification. All Auteuil did was to be as selfish as the average child; the fact that his adopted brother subsequently suffered is really more attributable to the actions of the Parisian police in 1961 than to the actions of Auteuil. And this, of course, is the key motif of Funny Games as well: in a slightly mysterious way — though it’s partly done by steadfastly refusing to judge the villains, while very subtly deprecating the victims — Haneke makes the victims more hateable than the aggressors.

So the people we actually end up directing our aggression against — the aggression which has been very effectively generated by cranking up the tension to near-intolerable (and, in Funny Games, repulsive) levels — are the victims: the bourgeois European mothers and fathers. Are these the people Haneke wants us to hate because they are the ones he himself hates? Did they do to him as a child what they did to the ‘hero’ of Caché, Mahdi? As he says in the DVD interview, “being an artist is a privilege which allows one to explore one’s neuroses”. Well, in his case, not just to explore, but to use to make ideological points.