Candid Cameras, or: Looking for Meaning in the Modern World
By Fernando F. Croce

February already, and still catching up on 2005. Caché's turn this week. The first shot is a placid view of a gated Parisian townhouse seen from across the street, the image held for the opening credits and more, then fast-forwarded, rewound, and paused, all to signal the self-reflexive modernism of the director. Michael Haneke, of course, cinema's cranky reigning purveyor of asscheek-tightening anxiety, up to his funny games again. The film image, then, turns out to be video, surreptitiously filmed and sent, along with child-like drawings smeared with plenty of red ink, to the home's privileged owners, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. He anchors a literary TV show and she holds a book publishing position, both seemingly "nice" upper middle-class folks, though niceness never kept Haneke's pawns from having their kneecaps bashed by psychopaths or being sent screaming into postapocalyptic wastelands. The tranquility of the images can only cloak the squirming underneath the surfaces, and squirm the characters shall -- anonymous phone calls, increasingly invasive tapes, the connecting tissue of bourgeois life dissolving as secrets come a-knockin'. Who's sending the tapes? And why is Auteuil's paranoia tinged with guilt? "I'm sorry," he tells his invalid Ma (Annie Girardot). "What for?" "I don't know." But he knows what for, or thinks he does: a childhood injustice, long buried, done to an Algerian boy. The revenge of the Other. Or is it?

"Or is it?" That hackneyed expression proliferates throughout the movie, fed by the technological obfuscation -- the style is fastidious flatness, tons of medium shots made ominous by the feeling of insistent surveillance, if not by the unseen recorder, then by the orb of Haneke's own peeping camera. The Algerian boy chops off a rooster's head in shock-cut and, splattered with blood, walks towards the young protagonist with an ax, until Auteuil wakes up in bed: memory as nightmare, or nightmare as memory. He pieces the clues together and locates his would-be tormenter (Maurice Bénichou), now middle-aged and living in a shabby flat with his son (Walid Afkir). Orphaned by the horrendous 1961 police killings of scores of protesting immigrants, Bénichou could have been Auteuil's brother, but the rich, scared European contrived to have the Arab sent away, open wounds, like France's brutality, forced into clotting via amnesia. Haneke's aim is to pry open this wound and let the blood splash onto the wall out of Bénichou's slashed jugular. Staged at a distance, the sanguine spectacle is set up with Auteuil for an audience, one final shock to help him jog down memory lane. The confession comes at last, sins bubbling from the past in a darkened room with Binoche by his side, then the blasting brightness of the next day and the accusatory gaze of Afkir, who quietly demands a word with him. Yet forgetfulness persists -- according to Auteuil, his own conscience is clear.

As with Von Trier, I admire the idea of a filmmaker like Haneke more than the films themselves. Benny's Video, Funny Games, Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, The Time of the Wolf -- all truly sophisticated, august, rigorously committed to pricking viewer complacency, yet pedantic, churlish, and brimming with palpable contempt for the medium he has chosen. What good is the steeliest use of the long-take when the finger is stuck exclusively in wagging mode at the "manipulation" of cinema? As it dawns on the couple that their son (Lester Makedonsky) might be missing, their plasma TV is placed squared in the center of the screen, news of Middle Eastern turmoil readily emanated only to be ignored; fear of the dark-skinned Other looms for the characters, if not for the filmmaker, as an African cyclist zips by and a fight nearly breaks out in the street. Haneke is still trying to combine the DNA of two Stanley Ks (Kubrick and Kramer), prodding executed with sledgehammers, although Caché, like Time of the Wolf, is at least another step towards replacing facile jolts with compassionate scrutiny, a new heft lent to the emotions of the characters (and the audience). Oppression, whether in Algeria or Iraq, comes not only out of colonialism but of the moral fallout that Auteuil refuses to digest, instead choosing slumber behind drawn curtains. The penultimate shot paints the most dwarfing view of isolation, although the camera can still move a bit closer for the final image, the slender glimmer of hope buried deep within a swarming Tati composition. Hope? Why Mike, you big softie.

*

"Nothing is as it seems." One of Caché's watched characters? No, Albert Brooks in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, a no less self-reflexive, less mauling inquiry into cinematic language, possibly more cutting ultimately. Haneke's panoply of formalist tropes gets trumped by Brooks from the very beginning, with the director-writer-star, playing himself (or, rather, a character named "Albert Brooks"), being dismissed for his Jewishness by Penny Marshall for the title role in a Harvey remake. A letter from the government waits at home, and Brooks, having recently visited Al-Queeda websites out of curiosity, starts quaking; the Washington summon is a benign one, however, hoping to incorporate the comedian into the State Department's new "instrumentalizing laughter" plan. Their idea is to document what constitutes a Muslim sense of humor, and the Pirandellian arc is clinched by having the notion pitched by Fred Dalton Thompson, former senator and character actor, who announces, "I'm acting now." A brand new form of cultural imperialism, natch, and the fact that the mission is to send the comic diplomat to mostly Hindu-populated India (pointed out by the befuddled Brooks) is part of the myopic scheme, and of the joke. Still, any qualms disappear when a medal is dangled before Brooks' eyes, and even the 500-page report he will have to deliver vanishes momentarily from his mind.

Off to New Delhi with two unhelpful government aides (John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney), where comely Sheetal Sheth is promptly hired as an assistant but no advance is made on the research. To get info, Brooks returns to his stand-up roots and sets up a concert for local audiences in an auditorium, where the search for inspiration, rather than a continuation of The Muse, instead goes back to Real Life -- namely, the mock-documentary aesthetics, used to record Brooks' grisly death march of a show, the improv session among the most fascinating post-Jerry Lewis deconstructions of screen comedy. Sarcasm and ventriloquism for some reason don't break any cultural barriers, and Brooks slips across barbed wire into Pakistani territory to meet with some Uzi-toting aspiring comedians, where the same stuff, smoothed over by puffs from a hookah and capped by serenading them with "There's No Business Like Show Business," completely kills. "Kill" as comedian slang, like "bomb," the latter getting lost in translation and triggering international tension utterly unnoticed by the hero, who's busy being offered a part in an Al Jazeera sitcom titled That Darn Jew ("very timely") when not letting his anxious narcissism obscure the Taj Mahal. If there were any justice, the garlands now given to Woody Allen for Match Point would be handed over to Brooks, who also makes movies about himself but, always saving the sharpest knives for himself, emerges as the more searching artist, obliviously stuck with the tourist's snow globe in the end.


Reviewed February 2, 2006.

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