Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Deep Cover

Film: Cache (Hidden); La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher)
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Michael Haneke is a strange director in a lot of ways. I don’t know if I like his work or not. In that way, he sort of reminds me of Darren Aronofsky. I love Aronofsky’s work, but I always get the feeling that I’m not sure I want to see it again. Haneke also reminds me of the author J.G. Ballard. Nothing good ever happens in Ballard’s work, and nothing good happens in Haneke’s work, either. Haneke tends to deal with the uglier side of human emotions, the parts we don’t like to talk or think about. He winds people up in unpleasant ways and forces them to fight for their very souls. In that respect, he also reminds me of David Lynch. A good deal of Haneke’s work is exposing the rot underneath the surface of everyday life.

Cache (Hidden) presents a world very much like that of Haneke’s other films. We have, on the surface, a fairly normal upper-middle class Parisian family. It consists of Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), the host of a television program about literature; his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a book publisher; and their son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), who is about 12 and swims competitively. Out of the blue, the family starts receiving unsolicited videotapes that show that their house is under surveillance. More disturbing, the tapes start showing up with drawings. These drawings look as if they were created by a child. Most show a young child spitting up blood, but one shows a rooster being decapitated.

Neither Georges nor Anne seem to know anything about the tapes, the drawings, or any reason for them to have started showing up. However, it soon becomes evident that Georges is holding back. We see some flashbacks and dreams from him that seem to mirror the drawings—a young man coughing up blood and a rooster having its head cut off. When a tape arrives that shows the house that Georges grew up in, he starts to figure out who might be behind things.

That person is Majid (Maurice Benichou). Eventually, we learn the whole story. Majid was the son of Algerian workers who were in the employ of Georges’s parents when he was a child. Both were evidently killed in a riot, which caused Georges’s folks to strongly consider adopting the boy. Ferociously jealous of the attention given to this outsider from his family, the six-year-old Georges plots to make Majid out in the worst light possible, which involves killing the family rooster, which turns out to be the final blow in the decision to adopt. Instead of finding a family, Majid is sent to an orphanage.

And now Georges is in a terrible position. On the one hand, he and his wife feel threatened by the tapes and the surveillance. Additionally, the situation has put a terrible strain on their marriage, especially because Georges holds back almost all of the information about his relationship to Majid until he cannot possibly resist, which causes Anne to mistrust him and to wonder what else he might be hiding.

And then Pierrot goes missing.

Cache is a very strange film in many ways. It bills itself as a thriller, and there are certainly elements of that genre here, but the film plays much more like a domestic drama than it does a thriller. It’s really not that thrilling. Even the disappearance of Pierrot, which is mildly terrifying to contemplate for any parent, resolves itself too quickly for any real tension to be built up in that scenario. And yet this is followed by one of the most truly shocking moments I have ever seen in a film, a moment that I will not reveal here since it truly needs to be experienced. This moment gives us the full story of Georges’s past, which gives us something of a resolution, but it still somehow feels unfinished. There’s a significant lack of tension here despite the situation, and that certainly seems like a failing for a film that wants to be thrilling.

So what is this about? Is it hinting at the ugly relationship France has had with Algeria for years? Perhaps, and even if that wasn’t the intent, it’s almost impossible not to go there. Is it about this strange stress being placed on the Laurent family and causing the family structure to break apart into its ugliest and basest emotions? Almost certainly this is part of Haneke’s intent with the film. The reality is that the situation happening to the Laurents causes them to behave in ways that attempt to preserve themselves while damaging each other. Do they get so wrapped up in the mystery that they lose sight of everything else? Do we as the audience? I think so.

The real question is what it all means. For that, I think it’s critical to go to the title of the film: Cache. The English title Hidden doesn’t carry the same weight as the original title of the film. Certainly there’s a great deal of things hidden in the film, but “cache,” comes with the meanings both of the hiding place as well as that which is hidden. In both cases, it refers to Georges—the memories and past sins he has locked away as well as himself, the last remaining storage place of those dark deeds.

* * * QUICK SPOILER REGARDING THE TAPES * * *

So who is sending the tapes? Majid denies sending them. Majid’s son (Walid Afkir) denies it, too. The easiest assumption is that one of them is lying and are behind the surveillance. But if we assume that they are both being honest, we don’t have a lot of possibilities. I like to think that Georges is doing it himself due to his guilt about his treatment of Majid. But that’s just a guess.

* * * FAST FORWARD TO THE END * * *

All in all, it’s pretty typical Haneke. It’s brilliantly made, engaging, weird, and uncomfortable. And like most Haneke, I’m likely one-and-done with it.

In La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher), the emotions are much more on the surface, which feels unusual for Haneke, or at least the Haneke with which I am familiar. In fact, we start with a fight between mother and daughter. The daughter, who appears to be in her late 30s or early 40s is Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), the eponymous piano teacher. She and her mother (Annie Girardot) have a violent and turbulent. When, in the first couple of minutes, Erika returns home late from giving piano lessons, her mother empties Erika’s purse, discovers something she has purchased and destroys it, while Erika pulls out a few clumps of her mother’s hair.

Despite this opening, La Pianiste, like much of Haneke’s work, is about repression, and Erika Kohut may well be the most repressed character he’s ever had to deal with in one of his films, and that’s saying a lot. She appears to be completely repressed by her domineering and dominating mother, and this is a frustration she takes out on everyone else in her life, including herself. We see her being rude and short with students who don’t measure up to her standards, a set of people that includes all of her students. She is dismissive of anyone who shows interest in her and her playing, particularly in the young Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) who wants to study under her.

And then…well, there’s no nice way to say this; shit gets weird. We discover that the completely repressed and repressing Erika houses a particularly deviant side. After a performance, she wanders into a porn shop, heads back to the booths showing porn movies, puts in her coins and selects her film. And then, she reaches into the wastebasket of soiled tissues, extracts one, and sniffs it while watching sex. Later, after being forced to accept Klemmer as a student, we see her self-injuring with a razor blade used in an extremely intimate area. So, just when we thought that Erika was as repressed as she could get, we discover that this particular well goes pretty deep indeed.

In addition to her mental, emotional, and sexual repression, Erika is also ferociously jealous of the potential success of anyone else. She sabotages one of her promising students by putting broken glass in the girl’s coat pocket, cutting her hand and preventing her from playing a major recital. Eventually, she also begins a relationship with Walter, and this almost immediately turns to the bizarre, with her demanding the fulfillment of sexual fantasies that the young Walter is unwilling to perform. Additionally, she frequently frustrates and humiliates him, much in the way her own mother does her.

This is dark stuff. At times, it’s sort of fascinating just to see how far she will sink, and it makes me fairly certain that Steve McQueen watched this film on a continuous loop when he made Shame a couple of years ago. But it also becomes too much at times, not merely going to places that are ugly and repellent, but wallowing there for a long, long time. It’s never titillating and always uncomfortable at best. That’s the point, of course. The film would be sort of meaningless if the sex in it were in any way attractive. But it is hard to take, especially if you aren’t the type who likes pain, blood, and bodily waste involved in your sex life.

It is, though, a brilliant portrait of repression and the strange flowers the bloom because of it. Erika’s actions—her voyeurism and public urination at a drive-in, her self-harming behaviors—are all symptoms of the complete mental and emotional domination from her mother. While difficult to watch at times, it’s also damn interesting. It’s interesting like a train crash, or like television shows like “Hoarders.” One watches not specifically out of interest or clinical curiosity, but because sometimes, the freak show is what makes the rest of us feel normal.

Typical Haneke? Yep. One and done, but it’s as impressive as it is difficult to get through.

Why to watch Cache: Dark secrets are inherently interesting.
Why not to watch: For a psychological thriller, it’s mostly psychological without a lot of thriller.

Why to watch La Pianiste: Disturbing, dark, and brilliantly upsetting.
Why not to watch: It’s holy shit creepy.

10 comments:

  1. Some years ago I saw Le Pianiste (by mistake, there are so many pianist films around...) and I found it very disturbing. Somehow the memory of it has stayed with me ever since. You are right about the repression portrait. She feels she must be punished and abused and only by submitting can she get some freedom for the oppression inflicted by her mother with herself as proxy. It is a desperate need for her but also her own undoing and therefore so hard for us to watch. I just saw another mother-daughter film this morning on the bus, so I am kind of in the mind set right now, although the girl here (Bette Davis in Now Voyager) takes an entirely different and more liberating way out of maternal domination.

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  2. Now, Voyager is an interesting, but completely apt comparison here. It's also a great film--the one that turned me into a Bette Davis fan more than any other.

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  3. Cache scared the living daylights out of me because it managed to hit upon a very particular fear and paranoia I have of being watched. Considering the entire premise of the film is ABOUT a family who is being watched, it thoroughly unnerved me. I watched it by myself, and when my husband came home, he found me literally curled up in a ball on the sofa clutching a pillow, and I refused to uncurl for the rest of the evening.

    Do I expect everyone who watches Cache to have the same reaction I did? Of course not. But Haneke hit on something that deeply terrifies me, and as such, I honestly can't remember the last time I've been so freaked out while watching a movie.

    And as for who sent the tapes, I might send you an email about the ending because I do not want to discuss potential spoilers in a "public" place.

    (Oh GOD, and that thing that you're not spoiling, JESUS H CHRIST I almost stopped the movie right then and there)


    I haven't seen The Piano Teacher yet, in part because Cache so utterly terrified me I'm now a little reticent to see other films by Haneke. Yes, I know they're not all about the same thing, but still. A bit irrational, perhaps.

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  4. Having seen your email, I really tend to agree with that particular view. I like the possibility the spoiler above suggests, though. It would say a great deal about that character and would lead to a very interesting place if that were the reality. Sadly, I don't think it is, but I really want that to be the story.

    Cache didn't freak me out that much, but I see how it could. I see it as ramping up when Pierrot disappears, but that's resolve so quickly that it kind of killed things for me.

    And yeah--the thing I didn't spoil? That's a jaw-dropper for sure. And I will never look at the DVD case for this again in the same way.

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    Replies
    1. I DO agree that your interpretation would be more interesting. But I think the ending is ambiguous enough to leave the door open for alternate interpretations.

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  5. These are the two Haneke films that I have seen that I consider the least of his work. I flat out disliked The Piano Teacher. Cache I felt was just okay. It didn't push any buttons for me like it did for Siobhan. Also, I didn't have the reaction to the unspoled scene that you or Siobhan did. When it happened my reaction wasn't "oh my God!" but rather "well that was stupid" (the character's action).

    SPOILER WARNING FOR CACHE - STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT

    Siobhan may have said the same thing in the email she sent, since I shared this thought with her, too, when she reviewed this film, but in case she didn't:

    I believe it is the two sons that are sending the videotapes. The final scene of the film shows the two of them talking to each other. It's possible one has just sought out the other for the first time, but assuming they do know each other the French son would have easily been able to do all the things in and around his parent's apartment that we saw - far easier than for the Algerian son, so I feel he recruited the French son to deliver the stuff he creates.

    END SPOILER

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    1. MORE SPOILER

      Yeah, I think that's right. I think my version of it would be a lot more interesting, though. If the two sons are sending the tapes, though, it certainly leads into a film like The White Ribbon pretty nicely.

      END SPOILER

      Yeah, I didn't love The Piano Teacher a lot. I respect it for what it is, but that's about it. If I had to watch one of these again, it would be Cache hands down.

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  6. SPOILER DISCSSION

    I am thankful for the spoiler comments on this thread. It's helped me work through the ending of Cache. I watched Cache a few days ago and I wasn't sure what we were supposed to think about who was terrorizing Auteuil and Binoche. I watched the ending scene, the wide shot of the front of the school, thinking I was supposed to see something, but I never recognized Pierrot or Majid's son. Maybe I was too far from the screen or maybe I'm going blind in my old age.

    After I read the spoiler comments, I went back and watched the ending a little more closely and when I saw Pierrot and Majid's son in the foreground, I rewound it and watched their whole interaction.

    I guess that means they might have pulled it off together.

    I think the ultimate purpose of that scene is to provide several interpretations of what happened and how the plan was executed, but ultimately, the nuts and bolts aren't what's important.

    Part of the appeal of this movies is getting to this point and then figuring out exactly what is important.

    END SPOILER DISCUSSION

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  7. (For some reason Juliet Binoche keeps popping up lately in the movie I'm watching. I saw Chocolat a few months ago, and then she was in Ghost in the Shell a few weeks ago, and here she is in Cache. I don't think I've seen her in a movie for close to ten years. I'd forgotten how good she is. And still very sexy in 2017.)

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    1. While there are plenty of possible readings of what is happening and why, I think this is the read that makes the most sense in terms of what we see. It's not necessarily the most interesting possibility, but it seems like a good place to default.

      I like Juliet Binoche, but when it comes to Chocolat, it's all about Lena Olin for me. I love her at this point in her career.

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