Michael Haneke's Cache, a deeply unsettling (though somewhat maddening) thriller that turned up on a lot of top 10 lists late last year and finally opens today in Toledo, begins the way a lot of movies begin: with the shot of an ordinary home on a residential street, the ordinariness of the daily life going on around it sufficiently ordinary. Within a few seconds, however, you notice something is creepy about the shot, something uncomfortable but tough to place.
What am I looking at?
Should I see something?
Cars swoosh by.
Bicycles glide past.
People stroll through.
The image is strangely hypnotic; you stare at it intently. Am I missing what I am meant to see? Nothing weird happens - except this shot of the home, it doesn't move or shift. It simply goes on, and on, and on. The effect is not unlike that chill you get when you realize you are being stared at and when you meet the starer's stare, he will not break his intent gaze.
You begin to wonder if someone is standing behind a camera, if we are watching along with that person, or if we're just paranoid.
Then the image rewinds.
Lines appear in the screen.
We realize we're watching a videotape of a home. Watching with us is an upper-middle class couple, Georges and Anne (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche); he's the star of a literary talk show in Paris and she is a publishing executive.
They wonder what you're wondering: Why would anyone do this? The video of the home - their home - was left on their doorstep. But why? The implication is sinister, that their home is under surveillance by someone. Or it's a joke.
For the moment, Haneke, not the warmest filmmaker, leaves us somewhere between ambiguity and common sense. He offers enough hints to keep us questioning but withholds cozy explanations.
I'm not the biggest fan of his movies, but not for that reason: An Australian who's had his biggest success (Time of the Wolf, The Piano Teacher) working in France, he can be compellingly opaque and evasive and then punishing when his intentions aren't readily obvious. The guy is self-important, yet too talented with suspense to dismiss. He will not stoop to flattering you, though eventually you may thank him for that tough love.
It takes you to unexpected places.
For instance, he hates music. Scenes unfold in silence, and so many of his shots are static and unblinking - as if the film is watching you even as you are watching it - the result is a provocation on your doorstep:
Could it be these tapes are coming from ... no one at all?
A metaphysical solution, I suppose, not especially practical (unless this were one of those pensive new Japanese horror pictures) - but the thought still creeps into your head. Until another tape arrives, then another, and this time each is wrapped in a crayon picture of a small boy vomiting blood. Followed by a crude drawing of a chicken being beheaded. The family gets anonymous phone calls. The son receives a postcard at school with similar drawings. Then it gets really chilling: Another video, this time of the home where Georges grew up.
I can say no more.
The picture's cleverest trick is giving you enough information to piece together the mystery while remaining vague enough to suggest you're never going to know the answer anyway. I'm not sure there is an answer. Not the way studio pictures deliver satisfying explanations and you go home without a mystery in your head.
Haneke uses the conventions of slick studio thrillers - imagine a junction where Alfred Hitchcock meets Francis Ford Coppola's voyeuristic Conversation - to remind us a movie is involving as long as it keeps its secrets. You know that moment in any thriller when you realize it's safe to begin gathering your stuff and rummaging for keys?
Haneke never gets there.
No resolution for you!
Order is not restored when it's all over. The sky is not blue. Even if you prefer your films without the bow on top, Haneke pushes the enveloping sense of doom so far you begin to realize a solution is not the point of the picture.
Instead, we see a family unraveling. Its sense of security reveals itself to be an illusion (a favorite theme of Haneke's films). Distrust grows among family members, and only then does the filmmaker drop hints:
Political hints, questions of personal and social responsibility. The title reveals itself: "Cache" is French for "hidden away" - in this case, the unpleasant things we chose to forget because they get in the way of our comfortable present. In that sense, Cache might make a promising double feature with David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, another movie about our muddy consciences.
Or as it's more commonly lumped with, Cache plays like a companion piece to Steven Spielberg's Munich, another film about responsibility and a personal reaction to terrorism. Not surprisingly, Cache is more strident, but Munich, I think, is even harsher because it has the heart Cache lacks. Not that Cache needs one: Superbly made, it's immensely effective with its shivers and the way it gets you thinking of that old post-9/11 question "Why do they hate us?"
Because you're depraved and corrupt and what goes around will righteously come around, Haneke answers - and any picture that trades compassion for a smug finger in the face is a picture I don't entirely trust. But he means it, and the film will anger you, which means he's probably not all wrong. So think about it.
Sleep on it. You will anyway.