Michael Haneke's "Cache" (Hidden) is a psychological suspense drama of the utmost rigor and originality that raises universal issues of individual responsibility of the citizens of world powers for evils past and present wreaked upon Third World countries, and in particular France's debt to Algeria. Lest this sound too heavy-going, it should quickly be made clear that "Cache" is taut, terse, brisk and immediately engaging, even though it is demanding and wholly implicit in its largest meanings. This is provocative filmmaking at its finest, boasting portrayals that are impeccable because they are so completely natural, led by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche as a successful Parisian couple and Lester Makedonsky as their 12-year-old son.
"Cache" opens with a long-held shot of a charming Paris town house on a posh, quiet street. It is the comfortable, contemporary-style home of Georges Laurent (Auteuil), well-known host of a TV book program featuring discussions with authors and commentators. Binoche's Anne is his lovely, capable wife, balancing a career at a publishing house with her private life as a loyal spouse, loving mother and gracious and frequent hostess; she is the kind of conscientious, self-possessed yet unassuming woman who makes everything look effortless. While it's true that their son, Pierrot, is facing the onslaught of puberty, the Laurents' family life proceeds in an enviably normal, seemingly secure and prosperous groove.
This changes swiftly -- the opening sequence is actually part of a mysterious video shot by a hidden camera recording the family's comings and goings. Further, increasingly invasive and tantalizing videos arrive, wrapped in childish black-white crayon drawings resembling the classic "Happy Face" but with blood dripping from its mouth. There are a number of especially jittery moments when it is not immediately certain whether we're viewing the Laurents through Haneke's eyes or that of the hidden video camera.
Georges Laurent suspects more about the situation than he wants to reveal to Anne, understandably exasperated that he doesn't level with her more completely. The video invasion turns on an incident that occurred when he was a 6-year-old living with his parents on their country estate, still the home of Laurent's mother (a memorable Annie Girardot). Laurent's nightmares emerge as fragmented flashbacks scattered throughout the film as it grows more suspenseful, and it's no wonder a child would try to suppress so painful a memory that has now come to haunt and seemingly endanger Laurent as a 50-year-old TV celebrity with a cherished family. As he revealed in "The Piano Teacher," Haneke is a master at delineating obsessive behavior, as represented by the videographer, and its consequences.
Even as the past surfaces it does not readily clear up precisely who is tormenting Laurent. When the videos eventually lead Laurent back to that childhood incident, it does not disclose with any certainty who the surveillance videographer really is, even though complicity on the part of one or another individual of Algerian descent -- or both -- seems beyond doubt. The point of the videos and the drawings is to inflict Laurent with a guilty conscience, and the key to this extraordinary film's strength is that, since Laurent was after all only 6 when it happened, he has no trouble letting himself off the hook, and the harassment to which he and his family have been subjected generates plenty of understandable self-righteous anger on his part. Yet it blinds him to the larger question of collective guilt and responsibility on the part of the French to their former colony Algeria and its struggle for independence; it's akin to an American of Northern ancestry shirking responsibility for the institution of slavery in the South, even citing family members who not only served in the Union Army but also lost their lives.
"Cache" is tough-minded in the extreme. In its understated, spare and economically cinematic manner it confronts viewers head-on with those issues that are so profoundly uncomfortable and, for most people, so easy and tempting to evade, and the film accomplishes this with an ambiguity that continues to reverberate past the film's deceptively benign final image.
MPAA rating: R for brief strong violence
Times guidelines: Adult themes, far too intense for children
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Michael Haneke. Producers Margaret Menegoz (Paris), Veit Heiduschka (Vienna). Cinematographer Christian Berger. Editors Michael Hudecek, Nadine Muse. Costumes Lisy Christl. Production designers Emmanuel de Chauvigny (France), Christoph Kanter (Austria). In French with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; the Landmark Westside Pavilion Cinemas, Pico Boulevard between Westwood Boulevard and Overland Avenue, (310) 281-8223; and the Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.