The Paris-based Austrian director Michael Haneke, whose new film "Caché" stars Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, is one of the few contemporary directors who really gets under my skin.
That's not to imply that I think his films are great. They aren't. In many ways they are repellent and borderline cruel. But he knows how to fixate an audience's attention just as effectively as any horror-movie impresario. The victims in his movies, however, are not the usual bevy of nubile teenagers and sad sacks. His target is the middle class.
Haneke is best known for "La Pianiste," starring Isabelle Huppert as a piano teacher with a pathological overfondness for a pupil. His most characteristic film was undoubtedly "Funny Games" from 1997, in which a bourgeois couple is invaded in their vacation home by sadists who proceed to torture them for almost the entire length of the movie.
At one point, the husband finds a way to fight back, and Haneke, in a typical piece of neoavant-gardism, allows the scene to wind itself back until the husband is once again helpless and, this time, without any recourse for revenge. What Haneke is saying in this scene, as in all his movies, is that there is no way out.
"Caché" is the best of his films because, this time, his obsessions are linked to a larger experience. As usual, the atmosphere of dread and cruelty, the sense that Haneke is toying with our fears, is omnipresent. But the psychological and political ramifications are far more complicated.
The film begins with a static long shot of the exterior of a middle-class (what else?) Parisian home on a quiet street. We soon discover that we are watching a surveillance videotape that has been anonymously left outside the door of the home's occupants, Georges (Auteuil), the host of a popular TV show about books, and his wife, Anne (Binoche), who works in the publishing business.
Soon more tapes appear, showing the house over a period of several hours and accompanied by bloody drawings that appear to have been sketched by a disturbed child. Who is sending the tapes?
Georges is at first almost priggishly self-confident. He may work in the world of books, but it's clear he enjoys being a TV star. When the tapes begin arriving, his complacent world breaks down, and we begin to see the fissures (which perhaps were already there) in his marriage and in his relationship with his 12-year-old son, Pierrot.
This is the most Hitchcockian of Haneke's films. A seemingly well-adjusted man in a well ordered universe is brought to the brink. The power of the movie lies in its unknowability: We are never allowed to be convinced about the true the identity of the videographer, even when Haneke introduces into the mix an Algerian, Majid (Maurice Benichou), whose family worked for Georges's parents in 1961 at the height of French brutality in Algeria. (Readers should be warned that the film contains a particularly brutal piece of business that never fails to raise a shriek from the audience.)
Whatever his culpability, Majid represents the accusatory conscience of the colonized. He is the dark stain in the bright landscape Georges and his family - and by extension, the entire complacent Western world - inhabit. Haneke's people always come across as pawns in his chess game, but here at least the metaphorical dimensions of the players have a political justification.
But there is an undeniable narrowness to Haneke's world view. Why, after all, should the bourgeoisie be almost exclusively blameworthy? The depredations of the middle class are made to carry an unconscionably heavy load - as if the intellectual bourgeoisie alone was responsible for racism and imperialism. Haneke has always had it in for the middle class. In "Caché," his hatred is trussed up as a political statement. Grade: B+
• Rated R for brief strong violence.