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A Crisis of Material: Spectatorship and the Long Take in Haneke's 'Cache'

 | Essay |

  BY Casey Gould

In his 1975 essay, Jean-Louis Baudry argues that understanding of the medium's ontology demands "the viewpoint of the apparatus that it constitutes, [an] apparatus which in its totality includes the subject". (1)

Such a contextualization may help frame the subject-object relationship present in auteur Michael Haneke's Caché. Viewing spectatorship through the lens of technology, the film interrogates the objectivity of perspective, whether diegetic, technological, or spectatorial. Formal elements like the long take, a technical trope of cinematic realism, function here to instead disrupt immersion and activate the viewer’s self-awareness of their spectatorial agency.

Haneke's awareness of the audience, implicitly invokes a certain horizon of experience as defined by Miriam Hansen, who underlines the subjective uniqueness of the cinematic experience. Reflective of an emerging, heterogeneous mass public, this horizon includes what the dominant public sphere omits, distorts, or abstracts (2). In the case of Caché, it's the collective guilt and repression of French-Algerian tensions post-1960. This historic subtext, however, remains largely hidden, emerging only in the characters’ — as well as the viewer’s — periphery via diegetic and discursive tangentiality. By subverting the indexical properties of film, the dispositive of the long take thus functions as a matrix for challenging the space between spectacle and spectator.

Consider the formal dimension of the long take in classical cinema. In his examination of its role in exacerbating the artifice of realism, André Bazin argues that its use “is based on respect for the continuity of dramatic space and, of course, its duration” (3). As with films like Atonement (2007) and Children of Men (2006), the long take paradoxically acknowledges the staged construct of its choreography for the intent of immersive world-building. For practical purposes, the viewer’s function is that of a voyeur, one whose cinematic gaze is immersed not in their relationship to the image, but the image itself.

Thus the use of the long take in Caché departs from this Bazinian model by subverting, not securing a relationship with the real. Haneke’s camera loses sight of objective knowledge through a bifurcated approach to cinematography, one wherein stasis and movement indicate surveillance footage or a profilmic aesthetic, respectively. Composition and mise en scène are figuratively relegated to the background of the shot, shifting the viewer’s gaze from the diegetic spectacle to self-awareness of their spectatorship.

This distancing between film and audience, spectacle and spectator, is not unique to Caché — or Haneke’s oeuvre for that matter. The director’s 1992 film Benny’s Video also confronts the viewer with a formal bricolage that includes surveillance tapes, news programming, dream sequences, and “traditional” 35mm film. The strict division of visual mediums here vanishes in Caché, however, whose continuous use of the digital camera destabilizes the spectator with a materially consistent image. Perhaps the most compelling example from the film is the opening sequence. Caché begins with a protracted long take that extends over two minutes. The camera is stationary, overlooking a nondescript house somewhere in Paris. After a considerable delay, the film’s opening credits appear on the screen, superimposed on the shot, which has shown little signs of activity.

Rather than a vertical scroll, the text comes into view word by word, left to right, top to bottom. In this way, Haneke encourages the viewer to not merely see the image, but read it — an approach that remains appropriate for the remainder of film as well. What purports to be an establishing shot proves to be quite the opposite, disorienting the viewer, who is unsure what exactly is seen on screen. Midway through the shot, off-screen voices, later determined to belong to Georges and Anne Laurent, describe the shot of the house, aligning their voyeurism with the film’s spectatorial address. The viewer’s frame of reference is further manipulated when the frame literally pauses, conveyed with aestheticized rewind lines indicative of a VHS recording. It’s clear that not only is the image pre-recorded, its spectral address is both the diegetic protagonists and the cinematic viewer.

This destabilization of film’s indexicality, specifically the camera’s ability to record reality as is, serves throughout as a critique of Bourgeois hubris. On a diegetic level, Caché is about a well-to-do Parisian family terrorized by a series of mysterious video tapes. The irony here is that the culprits are none other than the Laurent’s son, Pierrot, and Majid’s son, whom he met at school off-screen. In this way, the film’s title is quite a misnomer in that what appears “hidden” is right under the protagonists’ nose. Likewise, the reason behind the boys’ surveillance stems from their attempt to reconcile the rift between their fathers and, on a macro level, the older and younger generations of native and Algerian-immigrant Parisians.

Slow-burning, tautly paced thrillers are the hallmark of Haneke’s work, and Caché is no exception. Here, the suspense smolders until the climactic scene where Majid invites Georges to his apartment before slitting his own throat — shot in a single take, naturally. The viewer’s visceral aversion to Majid’s violent on-screen suicide echoes Georges’ inability to watch the world news segments that appear throughout the film via the Laurent family television. It is precisely the use of the long take here that Haneke deflects the audience’s attention from the suicide itself to the act of viewing it.

According to the late Roger Ebert, the “smoking gun” of Caché appears somewhere around the 22-minute mark, well before Majid’s death. Despite a number of quick cuts, it seems that Ebert is identifying the nighttime shot of the alley from the perspective of the Laurent home, which is the only one of its kind in the entire film. One could argue that the POV of this shot suggests the culprit behind the tapes is one of the Laurents themselves. If so, what is their motive? Could it merely be an establishing shot signifying time and setting? Doubtful. Nothing is as it seems in Haneke’s allegorical thriller, which implicates the viewer in watching the tapes as much as its diegetic targets. Here, the cinematographic use and function of the long take is not so much about capturing reality as seen, but that which remains hidden.

 
FOOTNOTES

1.Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Cinematographic Apparatus.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 345-355. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.
2. Hansen, M. "Early Cinema, Late Cinema: Permutations of the Public Sphere." Screen 34.3 (1993): 197-210.
3. Bazin, André. (1967). What is cinema? Vol. 1 (Hugh Gray, Trans., Ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.