What does Caché suggest about the national imaginary of post-colonial France?

Introduction


Caché (Eng. title: Hidden) is a thriller-drama movie directed by Austrian filmmaker - Michael Haneke in 2005. The film is set in a small French town, where Georges (Daniel Auteuil), a Television Literary Reviewer, his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a book publisher, and their son Pierrot, are being threatened by anonymous videotape footages delivered to their house’s porch. When notorious validations are becoming more consistent, the main character decides to hunt down the notorious sender. Later it is revealed that mysterious events are not only the invasion on the family’s privacy but a haunting reminder about Georges’ childhood mistakes, traumas, and guilt, which dates back to the history of the 1960s in France.


Caché - Meaning


Michael Haneke connotes the major theme of Caché in the movie’s title. Manon (2010) states that the film’s name can connect to the mask that the silent era cinematographers used to block and emphasise the image visible on the screen. (106) The above reference can be connoted to the theme of the forgotten part of the history presented in the film. According to Sharrett (2005), the title of the film implies the ‘suppression of history’ (60) evoked by the film’s overgoing motif of forgotten memory and associated with its guilt. Celik (2010) explains the main theme of the film by quoting the director and the writer of Caché: “a tale of morality dealing with how one lives with guilt. Do I accept it? And if I don't what do I do? And if I do, what do I do?” (59) In order to understand the director’s reference to European history, the viewer must understand what has happened in France in 1961.


History – The Paris Massacre


According to Swedenburg (2001) on 17th of October 1961, Maurice Papon (the head of the Parisian police) ordered the French National Police to attack a numerous group of demonstrators, consisting of pro-National Liberation Front Algerians. The tragic Paris massacre has been denied, forgotten by French, and censored by the press for 37 years (in 1998), only to acknowledge 40 deaths, which nowadays estimates to above 200 victims. (77) Michael Haneke inspired by these tragic true events created a film, which combines both, an aspect of repressed memory of haunting past and guilt, with a thrilling mystery.


Narration and Cinematography


Michael Haneke triggers the story and narration of his film by using an everyday life device – tape footage. According to Beugnet (2007), the director was inspired by David Lynch’s 1997 film titled Lost Highway, where videotapes are used to explore the mystery of the couple’s life. (229) The main characters of the film are being haunted by the ghosts of their past. As stated by Ezra and Sillars (2007): “content exposes the way the past continues to haunt and to traumatize the present.” (217) Hidden camera in Caché haunts the main characters and invades their privacy. The film’s opening scene, at first, confuses the spectator, showing the image of a house and a quiet street, seeming to be nothing less than an establishing shot. The understanding of the viewer changes when the camera shows the main character trying to locate the source of the footage. Sharrett (2005) explains that “an abrupt cut takes us back to the same image of the house as the tape shifts into ‘rewind’ on a VCR while Georges and Anne ponder what’s going on.” (61) The end of the opening scene confronts the viewer by twisting the reality of presented shots. As stated by Frey (2010), the audience realises that the film’s narration has not yet started when two voices (Georges and Anne) start to argue offscreen. (161) The spectator is being confronted with footage recorded on the tape, thinking of it as a narrative shot. Haneke tricks the audience, later revealing the truth by rewinding the footage, creating the same POV for his film’s characters and its spectators. At the end of the opening scene, the viewer is intrigued mostly on finding the suspect responsible for the tape recordings.


Mysterious suspect


Michael Haneke confronts the viewer again, during one of the most violent scenes in the film. Throughout the whole viewing experience, the audience is determined to find the owner of a hidden camera. Georges is assured that the person responsible for destroying his privacy is an Algerian man, whom he knows from his early childhood. When the main character confronts Majid in his house, the only suspect commits suicide passing the heavy burden of guilt onto Georges. At the end of the act, the viewer is certain about Majid’s innocence. Cousins (2007) explains that: “it was clear that this question was not answered by the film, we considered why it was not answered. (…) The suicide was seen by a fake or non-existent observer (…)” (226) The scene was recorded by another anonymous witness, who might even not be a living person. Later, the viewer realises the insignificance of the whole investigation. The director implies that it is not important who is responsible for it, but what does it represent.


Technology


Michael Haneke decided to shoot Caché using for the first time the High Definition format. According to Beugnet (2007), he did it because “it allows for the elaboration of a vision dominated by the numbing power of amnesia – a vision that is not only suited to the film’s premise but disturbingly characteristic of present-day aesthetics.” (230) The director uses different mediums, such as television and surveillance tape footage, which combined with the film itself, create an abyss between what is real and what is not. Beugnet (2007) states that: “in Haneke’s work, the video becomes the obstinate witness to the everyday denial of intolerable realities and memories.” (228) The director creates the world of Caché in which both the viewer and the characters have no sense differentiation between the realness of the presented image. We accept anything that is going to be presented to us, without thinking about the real source. According to Frey (2010): “the audience forego its grasp on what is “real” and what might not be. Even as the medium has changed, the message remains.” (164) Haneke uses simulacra, which can be explained by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard as a “map (…), which projects a reality, without being real itself.” (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1988) The director specifically decided to mix the reality in Caché in order to refer to the Paris massacre. After the tragic events of 1961, the French media and press completely censored the reality for another 37 years. Moreover, Silverman (2007) states that the surveillance footage was used by the French army during the Algerian war in order to control and oppress the opponent. (247) Michael Haneke reverses the roles in his film, by taking the control over a French citizen hunted by the ghosts of his past regrets.


Critique of the intelligence


Georges and Anne are notoriously shown in the frame surrounded by books, which represent intellect. Although neither of them is interested in absorbing the wisdom hidden inside. According to Sharrett (2010): “in that film, Western literature is window dressing for the bourgeoisie, a mark of their respectable façade, and an extension of their smug aspect—Georges and Anne’s association with high culture is a mark of their aloofness and self-created insulation from the imperialist terrors their class has perpetrated.” (216) As stated by Ezra and Sillars (2007) “the married couple is using the culture as an empty and peaceful aspect of their lives, which releases their stress and enables them to forget about the tension happening every day.” (215) The above statement can be proven by the scene, which happens after Majid’s suicide. Georges after witnessing the tragedy of a man decides to go to the cinema, hiding behind the screen as a plain spectator in order to avoid any confrontation with his memories. Frey (2010) explains the actions of the main character as those that ‘numb his conscience’ (164) Michael Haneke surrounds the main characters of his film with high culture in order to show the paradox of their actions. Even though, they come from educated backgrounds they are to blind to see the truth about the missing history and to admit to the main source of the guilt that haunts their private life.


Historical Amnesia


Caché’s overgoing motif is the feeling of guilt connected with fake memory and forgetting. Only when confronted with Majid, Georges begins to remember long-forgotten events from his childhood. When he was six years old, his parents adopted an Algerian boy (Majid), shortly after his parents were killed as victims of the Paris massacre. Young Georges could not stand the amount of attention given by his parents to the orphan. He decided to lie about Majid’s punishable actions, which convinced the family to give the boy to the orphanage. The main character decides to visit his mother in order to talk with her about the Algerian boy. When asked the question, the elderly woman explains to her son that it was long ago and that she would rather forget such terrible memories. Georges and his family’s actions can be described by the term used by Donadey (1999): ‘selective remembering and historical amnesia’. (3) Both of them recanted their traumatic memories from the past in order to live peacefully, without any doubts. The only aspect haunting Georges is his returning feeling of guilt. Durham (2010) states that: “Caché creates a fictive memory for a society incapable of representing its own present. (…) It also makes a place, within the limits of postmodern sociality, for the point of view of a collectivity that it is not yet capable of imagining.” (263) Michael Haneke confronts the story of the main character’s family trauma with the true events of French history. How everything, no matter how crucial and valid can be forgotten by masses, for the well-being of everyone. According to Crowley (2010), the film shows the process of forgetting along with the associated to it issue of guilt, enabling Cachéto subject the structural and allusive play of memory: “even as the film evokes the events of October 17, it contributes to their “forgetting” by folding the events into a signifying structure that is built upon, and entombs those same events.” (269) The director of Caché openly admits being inspired by the events of the Paris massacre. Celik (2010) explains that “Michael Haneke based the story on the 1961 massacres because he was shocked that the event was silenced in a country like France, but he (Haneke) quickly adds: We are all inheritors of the sins committed by our parents.” (68) Although crucial for fully understanding the plot of the film, events of 1961 are not the main theme of Caché. Haneke presents a thorough image of guilt and repression, criticising the negative effect of media on society.


Haneke’s Awareness


Caché is an allegory of the French treatment of Algerians. Haneke uses one character’s suicide (Majid) in order to represent the lives of the whole forgotten nation. The director is always aware of his viewer. According to Wheatley (2009), he is “forcing the spectator to become aware of their personal drive towards pleasure.” (43) After establishing the relationship and understanding with the viewer by showing the audience what they want to see, because it drives their pleasure and satisfies their often not present aspect of violence, he finally encourages the spectator to reconsider his excitement coming from viewing the scene, and whether it is something the should not be ashamed of.


Majid’s Suicide


Michael Haneke shows how aware he is of the viewer during Majid’s suicide scene. Along with Georges, the audience throughout the progress of the plot were suspecting one character responsible for the recording and threatening the family’s privacy – Majid. When the main character finally confronts the Algerian man and he commits suicide. The man dies innocent because the death scene was being recorded from a hidden camera. Crowley (2010) argues that: “the shock of Majid’s death is at once a signature piece of Haneke’s aesthetic interest in violence and also offers an experience that is neither one of trauma nor of accommodation but that returns both Georges and the viewer to the responsibility of the gaze/regard.” (274) When presenting the scene director confronts the audience and makes them feel half-responsible for Majid’s death, because every spectator has been blaming the trauma of the film’s characters on the Algerian man. The next scene confronts Georges when it comes to his way of dealing with his burden. Instead of calling for help, or informing someone about the man’s death, he goes to the cinema. As described by Crowley (2010): “to the darkened room that frames his consumption of reality through images—images like the penultimate scene that we can read as a nightmare.” (274) The above quote can be directly connected to how Michael Haneke is criticizing the intelligence in Caché. Georges instead of confronting the source of his guilt and trauma is being pulled into a loop of unrealistic screens and books laying dusted on the shelves of his family house. He is hiding behind the mask of his intellect, forgetting the past that he is still responsible for. Only when he returns home, he is encouraged by his wife Anne to finally inform the police about the event.


Generations in Caché


Michael Haneke is presenting an interesting difference in generations in his film. Older characters, such as Georges, are living in constant denial about their actions. Constantly haunted by the feeling of guilt trying to remind them about the events from the past. The main character of Caché is confronted with Majid’s son about his father death. Georges’ anger increases as the relative keep following him inside his work building while being surrounded by a crowd of people. Majid’s son wants to ask him questions concerning his father and confront Georges with his presence while making sure that he will not forget again about his family. According to Crowley (2010): “at this point, Georges denies any responsibility for Majid’s life.” The main character until the end of the film is living in denial, constantly confronted by his own guilt. Another representant of the younger generation, Georges and Anne’s son – Pierrot is not involved in his father’s trauma and investigation. When he disappears for one night his parents are being terrified of his well-being. They easily blame their son’s disappearance on the mysterious tape sender. Their panic was causing havoc everywhere to the point they even decided to call the police. When Pierrot returns home, it appeared that he just stayed overnight at his friend’s house. Later, longing mother wants to talk with him, but she soon realises that Pierrot is being very absent. He confronts her for having an affair with one of her work colleagues. The viewer never learns if what the boy said was true. Anne is hiding the truth from her son, and husband.


Postcolonial Guilt


Caché is presenting the life of a man living with constantly haunting guilt. The events of the film are Haneke’s interpretation of the Paris massacre. According to Crowley (2010), “the guilt at stake is not the result of the actions of a child but rather the legacy of the mark of the past upon the present that can provoke guilt even when responsibility cannot be wholly assumed.” (275) Which can be connected to the guilt which had to be carried by French people when they’ve been informed about the events from the past after 37 years. The trauma is not of an individual character or a person, but a mistake of a masses. Crowley states that Georges’ trauma and guilt is not something that he is fully responsible, although he is not able to accept it and admit it even as an adult. (275-276)


Conclusion


At the end of the film, Michael Haneke decides not to reveal the person responsible for invading the private life of the family. As stated by Crowley (2010): “Haneke’s decision to let the questions remain suspended, raised but not answered, preserved and negated like the events of October 17, 1961, that provided a “fit” for Haneke’s shaping of guilt (…)” (276-277) The director does not want the spectator to focus on one person responsible for the event and thrust the whole blame on him or her. Similarly, to the Paris massacre there is no individual responsibility, the burden, unfortunately, needs to be carried by the whole nation. Crowley (2010) summarises Caché by stating that: “Haneke’s film is not about the events of October 17, 1961. Rather, it puts in play the complex relationship of memory, forgetting, and guilt that revives the after-effects of those events and lifts them into a modernist aesthetic that offers new readings of the political present, itself already half-forgotten, its relationship to its past only obliquely remembered.” (277) Michael Haneke, by focusing only on the aspect of guilt and forgotten memory in his film, demonstrates the real importance of mass trauma – everyone is responsible for the well-being of future generations.


Further reading


Martine Beugnet, ‘Blind spot’ The Caché Dossier, Screen, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 227-231.


Ipek A. Celik, ‘I Wanted You to Be Present: Guilt and the History of Violence in Michael Haneke's Caché’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Fall 2010), pp. 59-80.


Mark Cousins, ‘After the end: word of mouth and Caché’, The Caché Dossier, Screen, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 223-226.


Patrick Crowley, ‘When Forgetting Is Remembering: Haneke’s Caché and the Events of October 17, 1961’ in Brain Price, John D. Rhodes (eds.), On Michael Haneke (Detroit and Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2010), pp. 267-280.


Anne Donadey, ‘Between Amnesia and Anamnesis: Re-Membering the Fractures of Colonial History’ in Studies in 20th Century Literature (University of Iowa: 1999), Vol. 23: Iss. 1, Article 8, pp. 1-6.


Scott Durham, ‘Codes Unknown: Haneke’s Serial Realism’ in Brain Price, John D. Rhodes (eds.), On Michael Haneke (Detroit and Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2010), pp. 245-266.


Elizabeth Ezra, Jane Sillars, ‘Hidden in plain sight: bringing terror home’ The Caché Dossier, Screen, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 215-221.


Mattias Frey, ‘The Message and the Medium: Haneke’s Film Theory and Digital Praxis’ in Brain Price, John D. Rhodes (eds.), On Michael Haneke (Detroit and Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2010), pp. 153-166.


Rosalind Galt, ‘The Functionary of Mankind: Haneke and Europe’ in Brain Price, John D. Rhodes (eds.), On Michael Haneke (Detroit and Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2010), pp. 221-244.


Paul Gilroy, ‘Shooting crabs in a barrel’ The Caché Dossier, Screen, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 233-235.


Hugh S. Manon, ‘“Comment ça, rien?”: Screening the Gaze in Caché’ in Brain Price, John D. Rhodes (eds.), On Michael Haneke (Detroit and Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2010), pp. 105-126.


Mark Poster, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ in Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings, (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.


Christopher Sharrett, ‘Caché (Hidden)’, Cinéaste, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Winter 2005), pp. 60-62, 84.


Christopher Sharrett, ‘Haneke and the Discontents of European Culture’ in Brain Price, John D. Rhodes (eds.), On Michael Haneke (Detroit and Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2010), pp. 207-220.


Christopher Sharrett, ‘Michael Haneke and the Discontents of European Culture’, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 6-16.


Max Silverman, ‘The empire looks back’ The Caché Dossier, Screen, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 245-249.


Ted Swedenburg, Islamic Hip-Hop versus Islamophobia’ in Tony Mitchell (ed.), Global noise: rap and hip-hop outside the USA. (Middletown and Connecticut, 2001: Wesleyan University Press), p. 77.



Catherine Wheatley, ‘The Last Moralist?’ in Michael Haneke’s Cinema (United States: Berghahn Books, 2009), pp. 14-50

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