Caché positions us as detective. Throughout the film we follow Georges’s investigation to unravel the film’s central enigma: Who is sending the tapes? The answer to this, however, is never revealed. Instead viewers are left with more questions than answers; it seems that for every explanation there is a circumventing intricacy. This lack of narrative closure within the surface framework of a psychological thriller has proven fertile ground for critics, scholars, and home viewers alike as they painstakingly try to ascertain the elusive culprit. Character motives are scrutinised, performances are analysed, specific shots are dissected, and various theories have been canvassed. The viewer becomes ensnared in the hermeneutics of suspicion, a critical reading strategy that literary theorist Rita Felski has compared to the hard-boiled crime story, a scenario in which critic becomes detective, and text becomes criminal suspect to be “scrutinized, interrogated, and made to yield its hidden secrets” (224). Like Georges, the viewer becomes investigator, sifting through the available evidence in the vain hope that with scrupulous attention the film will surrender its mystery.
Of course, Haneke is not unique in his withholding of a film’s enigma. David Lynch’s surreal neo-noir Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) have garnered a similar response and continue to be debated. Film scholar Mark Cousins compares Caché’s reception at Cannes to other landmark film and television examples:
Where Dallas made people ask ‘who?’, Twin Peaks ‘what?’, the genre-bending films of the last decade ‘how?’ and The Crying Game was about the implications of the answer, Caché’s conversational buzz was more circular. Yes, we asked ‘who?’ Then, when it was clear this question was not answered by the film, we considered why it was not answered. (225–6)
Felski’s meditation on the hermeneutics of suspicion touches on this issue, considering literary texts as preemptive of our mistrust. Extending Felski’s reasoning here as applicable to other forms of cultural expression, I would like to argue that Caché is a film that “matches and exceeds the critic’s own vigilance” for it is already involved in “subverting the self-evident, challenging the commonplace, [and] relentlessly questioning idées fixes and idées recus” (Felski 217). Caché challenges fixed and received ideas pertaining to audience expectations of the thriller film, subverting generic conventions that traditionally see the enigma resolved, the culprit apprehended, and order restored. More than simply refusing closure, Caché casts doubt on the very clues it offers up as evidence. Such a text performs “a meta-commentary on the traps of interpretation, a knowing anticipation and exposure of all possible hermeneutic blunders” (Felski 217).
Throughout her essay, Felski highlights the lures and pitfalls of suspicious reading practices. Felski warns that attempts to gain mastery over texts by drawing to light purportedly obscured meanings are often as concerned with self-congratulatory demonstrations of skill in drawing hitherto unmade connections as they are with the texts themselves (230). While I do not wish to endorse suspicious reading as an unproblematic approach, the present paper considers what happens when readers encounter a text that seemingly cannot be approached in any other way. Unlike the realist literary narratives and mystery stories drawn on by Felski, Caché resists a manifest meaning in both form and content, making it nearly impossible for viewers not to search for latent meaning.
So where are suspicious readers left when the texts interrogated refuse to bend to the demands placed on them? This is the question I will be examining in the remainder of this paper through the questions Caché poses and the care it takes in ensuring its enigmatic quality. I will proceed by breaking down what I believe to be the three possible avenues of response—Caché as impossible puzzle, inconclusive puzzle, or wrong puzzle—and their implications.
I The Impossible Puzzle
Caché opens with a static frame long take of a Parisian residential street. This could be mistaken for a still image until a pedestrian bustles past. A woman leaves her house centre frame. A cyclist turns the corner. “Well?” a male voice intones. “Nothing,” a female replies. The voices come from off-screen, and soon after the image is interrupted by fast forward lines, revealing that what we have been watching is not an image of the present moment but a video cassette of time already elapsed; the voices belong to our protagonists, Georges and Anne, commenting on its content and manipulating its playback. From the opening moments it becomes clear that we cannot be certain of what we are seeing or when we are seeing it.
This presents an intriguing tension between form and content that complicates our attempts to gather evidence. Haneke pares back style in a manner reminiscent of the films of Robert Bresson or the work of the Italian neo-realists. Caché’s long takes, naturalistic lighting, and emphasis on the everyday suggest a realist aesthetic; the viewer can invest faith in these images because they ascribe to a familiar paradigm, one in which artifice is apparently minimal. This notion that a realist aesthetic equates to straightforward images is at odds, however, with both the thriller narrative (in which solutions must be concealed before they can be uncovered) and Haneke’s constant undermining of the ontology of the image; throughout the film, viewers will be disoriented by Haneke’s manipulation of time and space with unclear or retroactive distinctions between past, present, video, dream, memory, and reality.
An additional contention might be the seemingly impossible placement of the hidden camera. In the same tape, Georges leaves the house and walks towards the camera, unaware of it. The shot indicates the camera must be elevated in the street, and at one point it appears that Georges is looking right at it. A later recording takes place in the apartment of Georges’s suspect, Majid. Viewers are given ample opportunity to scour the mise en scène to find what apparently is not there.
Perhaps the camera is just too well hidden. But if this is not the case and we can neither locate nor conceive of the camera’s placement because it simply cannot be there, this would seem to break the rules of the game. If we are to formulate theories as to the culprit at large, what good is our evidence if it is unreliable? Viewers could stop here and conclude that a puzzle without a solution amounts to a film without a point. “Well?” Georges asks in the film’s opening. “Nothing,” Anne replies. Case closed.
Short of giving up on a solution, one might conclude (as Antoine Doinel has) that those looking within the film for a perpetrator are looking in the wrong place. When the motives or opportunities of on-screen characters do not add up, perhaps it is Haneke one should turn to. Those familiar with Haneke’s earlier film Funny Games (1997) will know he is not afraid to break the tacit rules by which we suspend our disbelief if there is a point to be made. Film scholar David Sorfa concludes it is in fact the audience who send the tapes; Caché’s narrative is fuelled by the desire of viewers who want to see a film (102). Tempting though these solutions might be (Georges does not see the camera because he is a fictional character in a film unaware of its creator), as critic Roger Ebert has pointed out, such theories render both the film’s content, and any analysis of it, without purpose:
It introduces a wild card. It essentially means that no analysis of the film is relevant, because nothing need make sense and no character actions need be significant. Therefore, the film would have the appearance of a whodunit but with no who and no dunnit. (“Caché: A Riddle”)
The Caché as impossible puzzle avenue leaves the suspicious reader without reason to engage. If there can be no reward for our efforts, we are left without incentive. Alternately, if we conclude that Haneke is but the puppet master sadistically toying with his characters, we are left at a similar juncture; our critical enquiry has all the consequence of the trite “but it was all a dream…” scenario. “Well?” “Nothing.” I suspect there is more to Caché than that. A film so explicit in its stimulation of suspicious reading seems to merit our engagement. However, this is not to say that our attention will be satisfied with the neatly tied up solution we might expect.
II The Inconclusive Puzzle
When, one evening, Pierrot does not come home as expected, Georges and Anne conclude the boy has been kidnapped. They interpret their son’s absence as an escalation in the “campaign of terror” that had hitherto consisted of surveillance videos, odd phone calls, and childlike but portent drawings. With police assistance, Georges goes to confront his suspect, Majid. An Algerian boy from his childhood, now middle aged and disadvantaged because of lies Georges told as a child, Majid has already (quite convincingly) denied any knowledge of the tapes. At the door they meet Majid’s son who is equally perplexed at the accusation of kidnapping. The pair are arrested and an exhausted Georges returns home to explain the situation to his wife:
Georges: So now they’re both in the cage for the night.
Anne: And then?
Georges: Then they’ll let them go. If there’s no proof, they have to. There’s suspicion, nothing more.
The next day a sullen Pierrot returns home, having stayed the night at a friend’s without notifying his parents. His clear disdain for his mother is revealed as he rejects her affection and accuses her of having an affair. Pierrot likewise treats his father with disinterest, raising viewer suspicion that he might have a motive for tormenting his parents with the videotapes.
Pierrot is just one cog in the family’s internal mechanism of suspicion, however. Whether or not Anne is actually having an affair can only be speculated; she denies it, but other scenes open the way to our suspicion. Anne is rightly suspicious of Georges’s reluctance to be open about his past as his proclivity to lie is gradually revealed. In short, Haneke deliberately layers the film with complexity and ambiguity; numerous characters could be implicated, and many questions are raised but few are answered.
This suggests that suspicious readers might have recourse to Haneke as author of the text. Haneke, however, celebrates Caché’s ambiguity and his decision to leave the film open: “The truth is always hidden…that’s how it is in the real world. We never, ever know what the truth is. There are a thousand versions of the truth. It depends on your point of view” (Haneke). In interview, Haneke’s language also raises suspicion. At times he speaks knowingly (refusing to reveal important dialogue that occurs in the film’s final shot—an extreme long shot, the characters too distant to be heard), and at other times he seems as uncertain as his viewers (commenting on Anne’s denial of an affair, Haneke remarks “I believe her because she plays it very seriously. But you never know”) (Haneke).
Despite this reluctance to offer explanations, Haneke’s status as an auteur with recurring concerns and an ever-developing vision prompts suspicious readers to evaluate Caché in light of his greater oeuvre. Those suspecting Pierrot of wanting to punish his parents might find their theory bolstered by Benny’s Video (1992), Haneke’s film about a teenage boy who murders a friend and then turns in his parents to the police for helping him cover it up. Furthermore, Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon, 2009) is set in a small German village on the eve of World War One and the narrative strongly suggests the town’s children are responsible for a series of malicious crimes. Whilst malign children in Haneke’s other works cannot explain Caché’s mystery, his oeuvre provides a greater context in which to consider the film, and regenerates discussion as viewers look for patterns in the subject matter Haneke chooses to explore.
Regarding Caché as an inconclusive puzzle shifts the emphasis from a neatly packaged solution to a renewable process of discovery. To suggest that there is an answer to be found in the text, a culprit who escapes apprehension but is at least present to be caught, gives suspicious readers cause to engage and re-engage. It is to assume that the film is not without a point. Close attention may reward us with meaningful nuances that colour our interpretation. Haneke’s obsessive attention to detail also seems to suggest that nothing on screen is accidental or arbitrary, that our concentration is warranted, and that active viewing is a necessity even if our expectations and desires for closure may not be granted.
Caché ends without revealing its secret. Georges’s suspect Majid has committed suicide (perhaps due to the trauma dredged up by Georges’s accusations), Majid’s son has confronted Georges at his work place (“I wondered how it feels, a man’s life on your conscience?”), and Georges has refused any responsibility for his actions in the distant and recent past. Of the film’s conclusion, cinema theorist Martine Beugnet writes:
In the end […] we watch him draw the curtains, take a sleeping pill and go to bed: an emphatic way of signifying the closure of an episode, the return to normality—the conclusion of the film. Yet the images ‘refuse’ to comply: behind the closing credits, the questioning gaze not only persists but affirms its capacity to reinvent itself. (230)
The images Beugnet is referring to are the two final shots, which are both static long takes. The first is an extreme long shot, taken from the darkness of a barn into the bright courtyard of the family estate of Georges’s childhood. A child (Majid) is forcibly removed from the home and taken away in a car (presumably to an orphanage due to the lies told by a jealous Georges). This shot is followed by the film’s closing shot, another extreme long shot, this time of the front steps of Pierrot’s school. The frame is cluttered with children and parents, and our eyes are not directed anywhere in particular. Some viewers will notice Pierrot chatting with Majid’s son (a potentially revealing conversation that cannot be heard), others will not see the two young men hidden in the crowd. Eventually the credits roll over this image.
Georges’s attempts to shut out the world seem undermined by these images, as Beugnet writes they “‘refuse’ to comply” to this notion of conclusion. Instead of bringing closure to the narrative, they raise more questions. What and when are they? One cannot be sure. The first shot may be a dream or a memory; its placement after a shot of Georges going to bed might encourage us to connect the two. The second shot at the school could be more surveillance footage, or possibly another dream. It might imply the boys have conspired together. It might imply Majid’s son is confronting Pierrot with information about his father. It could be interpreted as the end of the narrative, but it could also be the beginning. Some read it as threatening, others as hopeful. It might imply so many things.
However, this “questioning gaze” that persists and reinvents itself is not just the gaze of the film. It is also the gaze of the suspicious reader. From the initial hype upon the film’s Cannes release in 2005, to the various theories circulating in online forums, to Ebert’s scrupulous re-evaluation of the film’s enigma in 2010, to the ever developing body of scholarly work on Haneke’s films, it seems Caché’s mileage for suspicious readers is still running strong, not least because “whodunit?” may be the wrong question.
III The Wrong Puzzle
Oliver C. Speck has remarked that Caché is “Haneke’s most accessible film, but also the most densely layered,” leading the viewer “on a search for clues that always ends in frustration” (97). For Ebert, the film’s lack of resolution leaves the viewer “feeling as the characters feel, uneasy, violated, spied upon, surrounded by faceless observers” (“Caché”). Cousins likewise comments on the process Caché instigates:
The film structures our experience in a generically gripping way but then the structure melts away at the moment when it should most cohere, requiring us to look back along its length (the structure’s length and the film’s) to work out where we went wrong. But we did not go wrong. We went where we were told to go, we took the hand of the narrative that, in the final stages, slipped away, leaving us without co-ordinates. (226)
The "whodunit” of Caché cannot be definitively proven. Ultimately, viewers can have suspicion, nothing more. So where are we left as suspicious readers when texts such as Caché surpass our own critical vigilance? We can throw in the towel and claim that an impossible puzzle does not deserve our efforts. We can accept that the text has out-played us; it is an inconclusive but compelling puzzle that does not provide enough links in the hermeneutic chain for us to find the closure we seek. Alternately, when the answer is not forthcoming, we can hypothesise that perhaps we have been asking the wrong question; whodunit is beside the point, simply a Hitchcockian MacGuffin (the object or objective that the protagonists seek) introduced to bait us into confronting much more important questions. Perhaps instead we should be asking what Caché can tell us about colonial histories, guilt, vision, or the ontology of cinema itself.
This is the avenue many scholars have taken, and the avenue Haneke (rather than his film necessarily) would have us take. The “who did what, when, why, and how” might be regarded as beside the point. In an interview with Andrew O’Hehir, Haneke is quoted:
These superficial questions are the glue that holds the spectator in place, and they allow me to raise underlying questions that they have to grapple with. It’s relatively unimportant who sent the tapes, but by engaging with that the viewer must engage questions that are far less banal.
Catherine Wheatley agrees, arguing Caché’s open ending renders the epistemological questions of the guilty party and their motives irrelevant, giving preference to questions raised by how this chain of events affect Georges, and by extension the viewer (163–4).
By refusing to divulge its secrets, Caché both incites and critiques the interpretive process, encouraging us to take up the role of detective only to anticipate and exceed our investigative efforts. Caché’s subversion of the self-evident is as much a means to launch its thriller narrative as it is a way of calling into question our very understanding of what “self-evident” means. Where Felski describes suspicious interpretations of realist texts (those that attempt to unmask the ideologies concealed behind an illusion of transparency and totality), from its opening moments, Caché is already and constantly unmasking itself. The film’s resistance of a superficial reading seems to make suspicious interpretation inevitable. Wherever viewer suspicion is directed, however, it relies on engagement. Without reason to engage, viewers are left with an impossible puzzle where critical involvement and attention is of no consequence. “Who is sending the tapes?” may be an unimportant or unanswerable question, but it must always be a valid one. It is this query that incites and fuels the interpretive process. As there can only ever be suspicion, nothing more, perhaps it is the question rather than “the answer” that is of utmost significance.
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