April 19, 2006 -- “Caché” (Hidden) is a slow-moving, creepy mystery movie that grudgingly gives up its secrets in a frustrating manner. Call me a spoiled American moviegoer, but I feel if I have to sit through French small talk in a slow-paced film for two hours, I'd like some kind of payoff at the end. Instead, this film tails off into an ambiguous ending that resolves little and raises more questions than it answers.
Daniel Auteuil of “The Closet” stars as TV talk show host Georges Laurent, cruising happily along in life unaware of the discontent of his sourpuss son, Pierrot (played by Lester Makedonsky) and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche of “Chocolat”). One day, a videotape shows up on the couple's front step. It shows a view of their home from a hidden camera across the street as the family goes to school and work and comes home. More tapes arrive, some wrapped in paper bearing crude sketches of bloody mouths, severed heads and other gruesome depictions. The police are powerless to help.
A clue in one of the videos leads Georges Laurent to someone from his childhood, Majid (Maurice Bénichou) a man of Algerian descent who Laurent once wronged. Laurent is afraid Majid is trying to get revenge. Shaken out of his complacency at last, Laurent loses control and threatens Majid. Then, Pierrot disappears and Laurent accuses Majid of kidnapping, only to find out later that his son is fine. His disappearance is just a misunderstanding. Tensions mount as one of the tapes, showing Laurent threatening Majid is sent to Laurent's employer. The tension mounts until finally one of the characters lies dead in a pool of blood.
The movie's final scene, shot by a stationary video camera, just like the stationary shots in the threatening videos, gives us a hint of who has been sending the videos, but the motive is a mystery. Also inexplicable is the inhuman emotional reaction of the perpetrator to the tragic events in this story. The story has an obvious parallel to the bitter relationship between France and the foreign workers who live there. They have been rioting all across that troubled nation. The main character, Georges Laurent is steadfastly unrepentant for the damage he has caused Majid and his family. Presumably, most French people similarly don't feel responsible for the plight of foreign workers in France. Of course, the United States is currently undergoing its own immigration reform troubles with hard-line proposals generating massive demonstrations all over the nation.
The moral of the story seems to be that people should take a hard look at themselves before blaming others for their problems. This film was shot in HD video format. Director Michael Haneke makes effective use of stationery camera shots both to create the threatening videos and to duplicate those same kinds of shots elsewhere in the movie. You never know if this kind of static scene is being filmed for conventional use, or as a video weapon to unnerve the Laurent family, or both. The film's lack of a musical score heightens the ambiguity of these stationary shots.
The effect of the movie is unnerving, especially when it gets deadly. Yet the movie is sluggishly paced and I found the ending (more on the ending below) frustrating because it raises more questions than it settles. One definition of a film critic is someone with a high tolerance for slow-paced, complex films. I'm probably guilty as charged, but this film pushed the limits of my patience. The film is in French with English subtitles. The white subtitles occaisionally disappear into white backgrounds, making them hard to read. This film rates a C.
The following reveals some of the film's mysteries. If you want to see this film without knowing in advance who did it, don't read the following. Note: the review above is purposefully vague, and at times a wee bit misleading, to avoid giving away any information that might spoil the film for those who have not seen it.
The final shot in the movie, another stationary shot of course, reveals that Pierrot, the sullen son of Mr. and Mrs. Laurent, is friendly with Majid's son (played by Walid Afkir). The two seem quite pleased with themselves in this scene. It appears these two are behind the mysterious videotapes that unnerved the Laurents. While watching the movie, I had guessed that Pierrot was involved in making the videos, but I hadn't guessed that he and Majid's son knew each other and had worked together to make the videos.
This explains how they were able to tape the one video shot outside the city. Since Pierrot is too young to drive, he needed help to get that shot. It also explains how they had access to hide a camera inside Majid's apartment. What it doesn't explain is why Majid's son seems so carefree when Majid had just committed suicide. If Majid had somehow faked his suicide, but was still alive, his son's jolly attitude would make sense. If Majid's son had successfully framed Georges Laurent for the murder of his father, that might have made him feel a little better, too, but it appears that Mr. Laurent got away scot-free and did not learn anything from this whole bizarre exercise.
I read that the director decided to cut the sound from the last scene so we can't hear the dialogue between Pierrot and Majid's son. Some sort of artistic choice, that. If we could hear that conversation, here is how it might sound. Majid's son: “Those videos sure did shake up your parents. It was too bad my dad had to die, but the expression on your father's face when my dad cut his own throat was priceless! We sure showed him!”
The film also fails to answer the question of why Majid committed suicide. Did he do it just to embarrass Laurent? That seems weak. Was he depressed? There is no indication of it. Did he feel guilty about something? There is no indication of that, either. Maybe he was just bored with this film. He could have at least left a note. Majid's suicide is just one of the many unsolved mysteries left hanging at the end of the film. Hey, at least Majid actually did something. That is more than anyone else in the film accomplished.
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