Michael Haneke’s CACHÉ opens on a Parisian side street in daylight, captured in a prolonged wide shot that’s notable solely for its banality. It’s not until the voices of a man and woman emerge over the ambient noise that we realize what we’re seeing, surveillance of a family’s house recorded to video and then left at their door. As the couple fast-forwards through the remaining footage, lines of distortion fall across the hastening frames like the bars of a cage. Finally, the video pauses as the man is shown crossing the road, freezing him in place. Along with the serene setting, the camera has captured the man as well, locking him within a moment of time. In CACHÉ, video transcends mere reproduction to become a living image of the past, like memories that refuse to be forgotten, and for one man such memories soon become his prison.
That man is Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), a literary critic of some renown who makes his living on television. Despite his profession, Georges regards the first and later tapes as obvious threats, even though their meaning remains obscure. The lone clue to their purpose is a drawing of a bloody face that he associates with Majid (Maurice Bénichon), an orphan he selfishly convinced his parents not to adopt. The link between Majid and the drawing thereby causes Georges to see the tapes as a deliberate reminder of this forgotten crime. He feels threatened not just because he is being watched, but also because he is being judged.
However, the videos themselves remain innocuous in their presentation, mirroring the establishing shots used in many films including CACHÉ itself. Their voyeuristic footage is so often indistinguishable from normal scenes that the line between video and reality is blurred. Accordingly, the film as a whole develops an ongoing sense of voyeurism as the audience sees Georges investigate the tapes and his past. Stranger still, by watching each of the tapes on his own, Georges becomes part of his audience and therefore a voyeur of himself. Through that act of self-invasion, that intrusion into his own being, his hidden memories and emotions are more and more laid bare.
With each new tape, Georges thinks more and more of Majid, even though he refuses to express those thoughts out loud. Eventually, a recording arrives that leads down several roads and an apartment corridor to Majid’s home, blazing a path that Georges cannot help but follow. Walking down that corridor, Georges’ own path becomes that of the camera, and what the camera has recorded becomes what Georges sees for himself. He and the camera become one, as if the camera was just an extension of Georges’ will, an expression of repressed guilt that cannot be restrained anymore.
But he still refuses to take responsibility after finding Majid, whom he instead accuses of producing the tapes. Georges identifies himself as a victim, yet a subsequent video of this meeting shows him to be a aggressor threatening an already broken man. The footage not only reveals Georges for the bully that he is now, but also mirrors the abuse he inflicted upon Majid before. As much as Georges tries to deny what he did as a child, his behavior as an adult proves otherwise. It’s as though his every action in the present contains evidence of his past crimes, as if every sin from decades ago is replaying through him again like a looping video.
Meanwhile, Majid’s past is defined by a sorrow that has developed for years, until it becomes so profound that he kills himself. This leads to another video for Georges, or at least something that resembles one. After seeing the protagonist go to sleep, the audience is shown an exterior shot of his childhood home as the young Majid is dragged screaming into a car. The composition of the scene suggests one last tape, but the time period means it is more likely Georges’ memory of seeing the boy, who could have been his brother, taken away to a life of ruin.
But if it is a memory, then that memory is just like a video. It is a lasting visual record, one that replays scenes within the mind and then rewinds so they can be played again and again, as Georges’ memories of Majid surely will. And if that video is a judgment upon Georges, as he believed the first video to be, then it is a judgment that he casts upon himself. It is a single moment forever suspended in time, within which he is his own prisoner.