Monday, June 07, 2010

Scott Tobias: Gateway to Geekery -- Michael Haneke

Gateway to Geekery: Michael Haneke
by Scott Tobias
The A.V. Club

Geek obsession: The films of Austrian director Michael Haneke

Why it’s daunting: From the beginning, Haneke has been a polarizing figure on the international scene, a moralist whose cold appraisals of man’s basest instincts are a far cry from the gentle humanism that tends to win plaudits and awards. He isn’t given to cutting his dark visions with a sliver of hope, and the audience isn’t spared from his scolding—even at its most direct, in the case of 1997’s Funny Games and its 2007 English-language remake.

Possible gateway: Caché

Why: Even after 15 years of lobbing grenades on the festival circuit, where the battle lines between his supporters and detractors had been firmly drawn, Haneke didn’t achieve a real breakthrough success—commercially, and to some extent critically—until his 2005 thriller Caché. And there’s a reason for that: It’s the most accessible and conventionally satisfying film of his career, while also crisply synthesizing his long-running themes and proving again that no director alive can suck the air out of the room quite like Haneke. For Haneke neophytes, it’s both the perfect way to ease into his work—the word “ease” being extremely relative—and a solid primer on what to expect from him.

With echoes of the first two reels of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the film begins with a Parisian couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) receiving a videotape that’s nothing but a long static shot of the outside of their apartment. As new tapes arrive on the porch—some wrapped in disturbing, child-like drawings—the images start to open up into a voyeuristic narrative that stretches back into Auteuil’s past. From there, Haneke deepens a precisely calibrated thriller with a sharp critique of bourgeois arrogance and a politically charged allegory on French-Algerian relations.

Alive with the threat of home invasion, dark secrets, and a malevolent voyeur, Caché sustains an air of such unbearable tension that something as minor as a joke at a dinner party leads to the film’s second-biggest jolt. (The biggest will be obvious to anyone who’s seen it.) It also ends on an image of such ambiguity that fans have looked at it literally frame by frame to figure out exactly what happens. Like Haneke’s other work, it’s blunt and unsparing, but it leaves something for viewers to mull over.

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