Branches and leaves twitch almost imperceptibly at a Parisian intersection. A bicyclist passes by. Directly across from where our aim—the camera’s eye—is pointed, a man leaves his home and gets into his car. He drives away. Shadows lengthen. The longer the shot is held, the more uncomfortable it becomes, because it feels less like the eye of an auteur and more like the eye on an intruder. We know that someone is being watched, and we, the audience, are being forced to play the role of voyeur.
Michael Haneke’s Caché was released in 2005; roughly eleven years on, it’s probably my hypothetical gun-to-the-head pick for the best film of the new century. And while we could discuss all the intricacies of Haneke’s always impeccable direction, the implications of marital secrets or clashes between the upper and lower classes of French society in the film, or its statement on French cultural guilt over its treatment of Algeria and other remnants of colonialism, all of those trees have been shaken, so to speak. The film has been widely available more than a decade, and as such, the major think-pieces on its immediate meaning have been written.
What I’d like to try to delve into is what Caché means now; that is to say, how a contemporary viewing of the film changes, or, at points, enhances its effectiveness. To do this, we’ll be taking something of a post-structuralist approach to the film, denying the director ultimate authority over his work, and allowing for cultural events, symbols, and the personality of the viewer themselves to help impart meaning onto the film. This is by no means an attempt to destroy the morality tale that Haneke has crafted; it is merely another way of looking at the film. For example, George A. Romero may not have intended for the shooting of Duane Jones’s heroic Ben at the end of Night of the Living Dead to be a statement on racist violence in 1960s America, but by denying the director the authority to decide what the film does or doesn’t mean, we, the audience, can take that statement away from the film, owing to the fact that Ben’s death may have been subconsciously symbolic in Romero’s mind the entire time, just as it is obviously noticeable in our own. By removing the creator’s authority, we’re able to understand the film as it relates to us individually and as a cultural audience—which is especially important in examining films that have stayed relevant long after their release, or in discussing older films that seem oddly fitted to contemporary problems.
With that in mind, the central problem of Caché, both in its original release and in a contemporary viewing, is the issue of surveillance: the thought that we are being watched by an unknown force or figure. Caché is not a horror film (and certainly less troubling than Haneke’s Funny Games or Hour of the Wolf), but it does carry a sense of menace with its every frame. The couple that finds themselves receiving anonymous videotapes of their apartment—aptly named, like so many other Haneke characters, the Laurents, to signal a sort of Parisian every-couple—are frightened not by what’s on the tapes, but rather by the idea that they are being made at all. Eventually, the tapes become more specific, and lead Mr. Laurent to confront a traumatic event buried in his past, but at first, the terror comes from a very small, simple idea: someone has taken an interest in them, and, more than that, they are letting the Laurents know it.
Watching Caché in 2005 was unsettling; watching it in 2016, it feels troubling on a different level altogether. Of course the world—and specifically, for our reading, America—is a very different place now than it was in 2005. In 2005, we were very much still in a surveillance daze, aware that the intelligence community may have been overreaching beyond the area we were comfortable with, but still too close to the trauma of 9/11 and too deep in the Bush years to really know what to do about it. The Patriot Act became law in 2001, and while questions about the reach of the surveillance it allowed for were certainly being asked (if you looked in the right places), perhaps the closest anyone came to unveiling those suspicions was Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ dinner, telling those in attendance that if they needed anything, they could whisper into their tables’ centerpiece and someone from the NSA would be “right over.” The vague feeling, even after Bush left office and Obama took the reins, was that the powers that be were maybe watching, but why would they watch us, because what did we, the average American, have to hide? These techniques were, after all, only being used to catch the bad guys (a term that has become increasingly nebulous).
But then came revelations from Wikileaks, and then the bombshell leak from Edward Snowden, and we were confronted with a truth that we may have suspected, but had no real clue of the extent of. The security and intelligence agencies—sometimes working in communion and sometimes working alone—were doing a lot of watching and listening, and while some of it undoubtedly targeted known terror suspects (or, at least, hopefully did), the vast majority of the information collected concerned the everyday American. This was not surveilling those who were suspected of perpetrating evil deeds; it was surveilling everyone, and then picking through the enormous mound of collected data to see if anything smelled fishy. Even in the wake of these revelations—and the assurances by the government and other political powers that anything illegal would be stopped—a kind of reserved skepticism, a fundamental mistrust, remains. Just this week, The Intercept—captained by Glenn Greenwald, part of a Pulitzer-winning team of reporters from The Guardian and The Washington Post that broke the Snowden story—published two stories suggesting that mass surveillance is far from over. The first concerned the CIA finding ways to mine information from social media; the second tracked Microsoft’s attempt to sue the Department of Justice into being more forthright about whose emails it reads, and why.
This is not an attempt to become overly political, or discuss whether or not this sort of mass-surveillance is good or bad or a necessary evil; rather, I’m simply seeking to illustrate that this is the cultural climate of the country, and world, that we’re living in right now. And that climate seeps into our understanding of how we view art, and thus, informs how we take in Caché now in different ways than it would’ve in 2005. The conception point of a terrifying scenario is “what if?”—we place ourselves in the shoes of the subject and imagine the scenario playing out in our lives. That was the case with Caché in its initial release; it is no longer the case watching the film in the surveillance. Its concept is still terrifying, but in a more surreal way. The question of “what if?” is no longer necessary; we already know that we are being watched. What happens now is that we watch the Laurents come apart under the knowledge that they are being watched, and we wonder why the same hasn’t happened to us.
The obvious answer to that question is that we perhaps take comfort in the idea that we are being watched the same as everyone else, and therefore, not in a predicament different than anyone else we know. But are we? Whereas Caché used to inspire fears of the watcher—the other/invader that has disrupted our daily lives—now, in era of mass surveillance, it forces us to look inward. The fear of the watcher changes to a sort of paranoia about our own lives. Have we done anything that the watchers might take note of? If we have, are we comfortable knowing that someone else knows it? This may seem overly conspiratorial, but when one looks at the smaller aspects of the day to day, the minutiae of our lives, we can see how serious it can be. Have we visited a website and thought, even in the farthest recess of the back of our minds, that this might seem suspicious to whoever is watching? Do we wonder who’s interested in what books we are reading, what music we are listening too, if any of the art or culture we consume might seem strange to someone behind a computer in a government building? And even if we aren’t acting in any way that may be construed as suspicious now, have we maybe done so in the past? In Caché, the ultimate invader of the Laurent’s life is George’s past. What have we done or said that could come back to get us? And more importantly, who has access to it that may be able to use it against us? We know now that our phone records and text messages are, more likely than not, being stored somewhere, even if they aren’t being actively read. We know that the cameras and speakers on our phone can be turned into microphones and watching eyes, linking back to who-knows-where. We know that the presence of the other, the watcher, is real. What we cannot do, and perhaps what is most troubling about it—in our life and in Caché—is that we cannot put a definite face to the watcher.
It is important to note that in Caché, when George Laurent confronts Majid, the man whom he wronged as a child, to whom the videotapes have seemingly been leading him, Majid pleads ignorance. Majid’s teenage son does the same. And yet somehow, the first interaction between George and Majid is taped and sent back to George, from an angle at which it seems impossible to conceal a camera. And yet, somehow, it exists. In the film’s closing shot, once the main drama of the film has been “resolved” as best as it can, we see the Laurent’s preteen child, Pierrot, standing on the steps of his school. He is approached by Majid’s son, and they begin to talk, though we cannot hear what they are saying. The credits roll over this image, and all we are left with is questions. Is this the first time the two have met? Does this confirm Majid’s son’s guilt as the author of the videotapes, or is he only reaching out to Pierrot after what has already happened? Is Pierrot somehow in on the scheme? In its original release, the questions raised by this final image were a sort of fun wink for Haneke to leave his audience with. He suggests something without stating it, and leaves us to debate and interpret the mystery, and, to eventually form our own conclusions (or to decide not to make a conclusion at all).
In our present day, those questions seem trivial, and to assign a single party as guilty of videotaping the Laurent’s feels almost too easy. It is easier for us to look at that final shot now and take nothing from it except for the unknowable. Knowing that we are watched by a vague, nebulous “other” makes it easier for us to watch the film without demanding a conclusion. In fact, we almost want no answers, because we have been given none. This does not lessen the impact of the film, it merely changes it.
Caché is far from the only movie concerned with surveillance and its impact, but it does seem the best suited to age well for modern readings. Unlike a period-piece like The Lives of Others, it concerns itself with a time of mundanity, not one of war. That it is perhaps the best use of Haneke’s famed restrained direction certainly doesn’t hurt either. But the film’s most lasting value is that it is centered on two fairly normal (if slightly affluent) individuals. Because of that, we can relate to it no matter the year or cultural situation. We can see ourselves in the Laurents’ place without having to imagine a far-fetched scenario. They are regular people; by and large, so are we. And despite all that normality—the banal nature of our jobs, or social lives, our marriages—we know, eleven years after Haneke first made victims of the Laurent family, that we have one very important thing in common with them: we are all being watched.