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Don't look now

Class and wealth can't keep world's ills at bay in Cache

No contemporary director can send an intellectual shiver down the spine like Michael Haneke. The Austrian filmmaker won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Director prize this year for his most recent treatment of First World terror in his devastating Caché (Hidden).

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In his previous films (Funny Games, Time of the Wolf and Code Unknown) Haneke has implied that despite the citadel-like comfort of the European upper-middle-class — with its prestigious jobs, safe neighborhoods and material comforts — something unsettling and deadly is waiting at the gate.

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As Caché opens, the well-to-do Parisian couple Anne (Juliette Binoche) and Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) have received the first in a series of cryptic, frightening packages sent by an unknown stalker. The onslaught begins with a two-hour videotape of the exterior of their home, which indicates they are being watched. The missives become more and more disturbing: The videotapes are supplemented by childlike drawings of a human head spewing blood and a chicken with its neck cut.

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There are indications in Haneke's set design that the Laurents have created a kind of metaphorical and literal fortress from the world's problems. Their living room is lined with wall to wall bookshelves, a kind of brickwork of intellectual remove. And their townhouse, safely nestled between two taller buildings and set back from the road, is buffered by a metal gate, enormous shrubbery and a stone wall. But their home is not quite the fortress they imagine. Their invulnerability proves illusory.

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The psychological assault on the Laurents is slow and steady, and it zeroes in on areas of familial fragility, like Georges' invalid mother, whose home is captured on one of the videotapes, and the couple's 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), who receives one of the disturbing drawings at his school.

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In his usual restrained way, Haneke allows each new disturbance to register not with spook-show thrills but with slowly dawning horror and a sense of paralysis. Despite a circle of educated friends and George's prestigious position as the on-air host of a TV book show, the Laurents find they have nowhere to turn. The police are uninterested, and all the usual avenues the well-to-do and respectable rely upon are of no use. The videotapes create another important disturbance in the Laurents' lives by opening up a rift in their marriage, which Georges' increasingly cagy, suspicious behavior only exacerbates.

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Something in Georges' childhood may explain why they are being terrorized. The tapes, like a guilty conscience, have come back to haunt Georges.

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Haneke's films, like the bloodcurdling Funny Games, about a wealthy German couple whose vacation home is invaded by a pair of teenage psychopaths, have often centered on couples and families undergoing some devastating trauma. That focus is deliberate — a means of showing the essential fragility and precariousness of even our most intimate institutions, and how the fissures there echo larger social disturbances.

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Haneke keeps the tension ratcheted up in Caché with unsettling effects, like the sudden, jolting insertion of shots of a young boy with a bloody mouth within the drama. Equally haunting is the television news that plays in the background of the Laurents' spotless modernist living room. It is a litany of bloody Iraq War casualties and men in biohazard suits — the grotesque wallpaper of horror that somehow occupies the First World's living rooms but has little impact on its daily operations.

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Caché's premiere at Cannes in May came as an eerie premonition to the real-life riots in Paris during fall 2005 in which disenfranchised, predominately North African youths destroyed their own neighborhoods and expressed some of the fomenting tensions between French authority and the immigrant class. The small, nervous Algerian man (Haneke regular Maurice Benichou) who Georges suspects of terrorizing his family dwells in one of those depressing, poor suburbs where the city's "hidden" class is housed. Caché illuminates the ugly fissures between people like Georges and the Algerian man that keep those worlds separate and unequal.

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As in his previous films, Haneke's message is profound and guilt-inducing. Haneke suggests that despite the feelings of invulnerability our well-run cities and lives give us, the real world with all its problems has a way of leaking in. Like Binoche's character in Code Unknown who ignores the abuse of a child in the apartment above hers, we ignore domestic violence in our apartment buildings and global injustice in the world at our own moral peril.

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Haneke dissenters have decried his willingness to impose guilt and trauma on his viewers, as if such sensations are somehow acceptable in a lowbrow horror film but have no place in thoughtful contemporary world cinema. But when the First World, and especially its most affluent members, seems utterly cut off from the globe's troubles, cinematically buffered trauma is a puny price to pay for true responsibility.