All we hold dear is so precarious, and writer-director Michael Haneke brings that notion piercingly home in “Caché,” a tale whose spare, simple surface conceals an unnerving emotional labyrinth.
This is a film that will rattle — and, in one unexpected instant, shock — viewers into contemplation of their own choices, values, regrets and transgressions, and its images and ideas will continue to perturb long, long afterward.
Austrian filmmaker Haneke (“The Piano Teacher”) can be cryptic to the point of infuriation, withholding easy answers on what drives his often unsympathetic characters. Here, Haneke leaves his audience dangling on a key point, yet the film is strangely stronger for the omission, an impetus for endless debate and personal speculation.
The French-language “Caché,” or “Hidden,” defies categorization, not quite thriller, not quite domestic drama, centering on literary talk-show host Georges (Daniel Auteuil), his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), and their young son.
The couple’s cozy, rather sterile life is disrupted by the arrival of a videotape containing a lingering shot of the exterior of their apartment and their comings and goings.
There is no note, no explanation, and soon similar tapes arrive along with eerily menacing drawings. No overt threats have been made, but Georges and Anne are shaken from their complacency, forced to live in vague uncertainty over their apparent stalker’s identity and motives.
Then a tape arrives that offers a clue, leading Georges to an encounter with Majid (Maurice Benichou), a figure from his youth. Majid, an orphaned Algerian boy, had been taken in by Georges’ compassionate mother, and Georges now finds himself confronting forgotten or suppressed memories about actions he took in childhood.
Binoche brings ferocious maternalism to Anne, while Benichou captures an air of tragic nobility beneath Majid’s beaten-down exterior.
But “Caché” is Auteuil’s show, the actor subtly leading the audience through a maze of conflicting emotions as Georges broods, seethes, vacillates and ultimately examines his own soul for blemishes he never knew were there.
Haneke, who won the directing prize for “Caché” at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival, expertly intersperses flashbacks that illuminate the action and slowly reveal cracks in what had seemed a firm family foundation.
The immobile camera stares in quiet judgment, implacably boring through scenes like the cold eye of God. Haneke leaves the verdict, even the accusation, for viewers to interpret themselves.
“What wouldn’t we do not to lose what’s ours?” asks one of his characters.
The answer is unclear, but “Caché” asks it brilliantly.