Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A thousand truths: Caché

In an interview that is an extra on the DVD of Caché, Michael Haneke says, “There are a thousand truths. Truth is a matter of perspective.” Nothing establishes this more clearly than the opening shot of the film: a camera that is placed in some side street shows a road in a residential area.

Some cars are parked; there are apartments in the front and on the left of the frame; an occasional cyclist passes by, or a car hisses past from left to right. If there are murmurs or any ambient sound, you don’t really hear them because the titles are coming up across the screen and they are almost too tiny to read. The titles eventually disappear but nothing else changes – a static shot of a street, and some movement in the frame and perhaps a little more sound than there was a minute ago.

Suddenly the image flickers, twists and there are a couple of large dropouts. Then, the steady horizontal lines across the frame that you get when you’re rewinding a VHS tape. With a shock you realise that this is exactly what is happening: the shot that you’ve been watching is being wound back and replayed.

In cinema, one of the ‘truths’ that has been handed down is that the camera itself is a mere recording instrument. That what you see is a ‘truth’, an event that has as its basis a measure of verifiability, because it cannot be broken down. It is to montage, or construction, that we look for the distortion of the simplicity of a shot. We have come to expect from montage the 2+2=5 formula that implies that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

This opening shot of Caché overturns those expectations so effectively, that you are already unsettled by the time you understand what you have just seen. Immediately after, you see a couple standing in front of a TV screen, watching a tape. Someone has been sending them videotapes of their house and their movements, as if to say, “Look out. You’re being watched.” Sometimes, these tapes come wrapped in a paper that has disturbing drawings that are meant to look as if they were drawn by a child. Very briefly, the film is about the couple trying to find out who made and sent those tapes, and the effects that this event has upon the family.

In the course of the film, many things that have been hidden (the English title of the film is Hidden) are revealed either reluctantly or in such a manner that you are forced to doubt not only the intentions of the person who makes such revelations, but the truth of the statement itself. There are indeed a thousand truths, and everyone has their own version of it.

To return to the import of the opening shot: when the film opens, as a viewer, you are ready to take what is presented to you at face value. A street, with some occasional movement on it. When the image is rewound, another ‘truth’ laminates itself on to the earlier one, until you are forced to view the first in the light of the second. What this emphasises, cinematically, is that if truth is a matter of perspective, then what you see in the film is not just a story of people who have kept many disturbing things in their lives buried and unexamined; it is also the story of how you, as a viewer, begin to realise the ways in which the truth is concealed.

In an interview with Sight and Sound, Godard says, “Certain ministers of culture in France are saying young people should be taught how to read images and films. No. They need to learn how to see them. Learning to read is different.”

Indeed it is. You don’t ‘read’ a film; you see it. This cannot be emphasised enough. There is no other way of understanding the opening of Caché except in visual terms. Just as there would have been no way of writing the slight alteration of meaning that takes place within the single opening shot. If a shot is one unified package of meaning, the only way of questioning the veracity of the shot is to call into question the way you see it. In other words, the only way to challenge a truth is to put it in a different perspective. In Caché, Haneke does this visually.

That this method is not accidental becomes clear at several points in the film. One tape that the couple gets, shows roads, a building, and finally, a corridor that leads to a blue door. Later, when the man traces the particular locality and is walking down the same corridor leading to the same door, the shot shows exactly what the tape did. You are meant to think that this is the same as that. Then you realise that where the tape was utterly silent, here you hear footsteps. And that the camera shows the same things, but not in exactly the same way – on the tape, the movement was smooth; here, there is a clear left-right sway to the camera. As these details register in increments, feet appear on the floor, and a point-of-view shot becomes a more neutral one. The man outpaces the camera and strides on to the door that you are already familiar with. But because so many things have become different visually, you no longer know what to expect.

Again, Haneke alters the truth of something within the shot itself, rather than through montage. Nothing is reliable, he seems to say. Not even what I say, because see how I say it?

NB: The final shot of the film, another lengthy shot of the outside of the son’s school, has been the subject of much debate because of its deliberate ambiguity. Haneke said, in the same interview, that he had originally written dialogues for two of the people in the shot, but later decided against using it. What is even more interesting is that a large number of people who watched the film missed out on a crucial element of the end because it was in long shot and they simply did not notice something important. For these viewers, the film must have meant something entirely different simply because of what they did not see. This is very cryptic, I know, but I’m really not going to say more. You’ll have to watch the film for yourself.


Jabberwock said...

Excellent post. Much to my regret I missed seeing Cache (twice) at the last Cinefan. Will pick up the DVD soon (am going to Palika on Saturday btw, will ask about the Cristi Puiu film).

Space Bar said...

Ah--you remembered! Thanks much. And any of his earlier films also, if available.

The only other Haneke I've watched is Piano Teacher (twice!) which is disturbing in an entirely different way.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Great post!! It was one of the best (perhaps THE best) films I saw last year. I agree with what you have said about Haneke's use of POV. It is interesting how he forces the viewer to think about things which even serious viewers would not do otherwise and connects thematic questions to the exploration of formal techniques.

I have now see all of Haneke's feature films. My favourite of them all is Code Unknown. It is one of the most important European films of recent times.

I have written about Haneke in a number of posts on my blog. The only two films I didn't like was Benny's Video, which was pointlessly sadistic and horrifying and The Time of the Wolf which was boring and sadistic and horrifying too! Also the killing and torturing of animals just puts me off!

Space Bar said...

alok: yes, he's definitely a filmmaker to watch out for. still haven't seen code inconnu...will watch.

Hiren said...

"Truth is a pathless land" and "The greatest truth is the one whose reverse is also the truth". So truth being a matter of perspective is right.