Tuesday, December 9, 2008


It's true that in Michael's films I'd like there to be a little more hope and a little more light.

- Juliette Binoche

Austrian auteur Michael Haneke looks like a cross between Jerry Garcia and the grim reaper. At his best, he's a chronicler of a society (contemporary Western Europe) where God is dead but the idea of sin is still very much alive and well to those brave enough to look honestly into their own hearts. That means you too dear viewer. Haneke is nothing if not honest, or, at least he wants you to think so. (Some critics that I trust found his last offering, Funny Games, an English-language facsimile of one of his earlier films, to be not only dishonest, but morally repugnant. For that reason I avoided it.) Western Europe is an angst-ridden place these days, flooded by immigrants from the south who don't share the modernist assumptions of ultra-secular Germans and French and Dutch. This clash of worldviews is vividly illustrated by the trend of churches and cathedrals being turned into mosques or internet cafés.

In Caché (Hidden), the film that preceded Funny Games, Haneke smartly captures the unease of a society through a meditation on the results of one man's guilty conscience long suppressed. This is one I can recommend as vintage Haneke. Here he is on his home turf directing two of European cinema's most recognizable faces, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, as a pair of typical bourgeois Parisians whose tranquil lives are unsettled by a series of videotapes sent by an anonymous watcher. It wouldn't do to rehash the plot, but viewers with the requisite patience and willingness to be toyed with will be drawn in to Haneke's world from first to final shot. Which, by the way, make for two of the most elegant and enigmatic bookends to a film I've ever seen. To put it another way, if loose ends aren't your cup of tea, this one may leave you gnashing your teeth, or reaching for the rewind button. What did I just see?

Haneke creates an atmosphere that I can't quite articulate. I'm sure some of it has to do with the complete absence of a musical soundtrack, which contributes to the ominous sense of dread. Mundane sounds are heightened by the subtraction of other audio elements. Of course, this is far from a novel technique, but Haneke employs it uncommonly well. You half expect monsters or madmen to jump out from dark corners, but it's metaphysical fright that Haneke is interested in creating. Another stylistic point worth mentioning is the use of digital cameras to shoot the film. It's of a piece with the overall mood, and reminds the viewer of the ubiquity of video screens in Western society. Increasingly "reality" is viewed in hi-def. We're also reminded of this by the fact that Georges, the principal character, is a well-known television host.

In the Old Testament book of Job we read a series of dialogues between Job and three erstwhile counselors, or friends. The three friends are mostly spot-on in what they have to say. Where they go wrong is in what they leave out. It falls to young Elihu to introduce the possibility of grace in this scenario. In the interview from which the above quote from Ms. Binoche is taken, she goes on to admit that Haneke the filmmaker isn't made that way and his bleak vision serves him well. Arguably the absence of anything like grace in Caché is what makes it such a rigorously effective piece of cinema. Viewers in search of light and hope will have to find them elsewhere.

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