Movie Review: “Caché (Hidden)” (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005)

One of the great unnoticed jewels of the last 20 years of cinema history is Lost Highway (David Lynch, France/USA 1997), a complex and difficult journey into the mind of a psychotic that opens with a bizarre and unnerving sequence of events: a man awakens to hear a message on his home’s intercom system of himself saying, “Dick Laurent is dead” and then he and his wife begin receiving video tapes in the mail that show their home with a camera slowly panning back and forth across it, moving closer to the house with each tape until finally they begin to show the inside of the home. Caché (Hidden) begins with a couple, the Laurents, receiving long video tapes showing the front of their home but they are unable to find the videographer, even when they walk within inches of the camera looking directly at it. It’s clear that Michael Haneke is intentionally evoking Lost Highway—the similarities are just too unlikely not to be intentional—and it’s because he has decided to make a similarly difficult, nigh impenetrable thriller that instead of examining a fractured mind examines the relationship between entertainment and reality, using that reality-bending nightmare of a film as a touchstone.

The plot of this film, unlike Lost Highway, is simple enough: the aforementioned tapes start appearing and the couple tries to figure out why, with the husband convinced it is related to someone he wronged horribly during his childhood but unwilling to admit his past actions to his wife. Where this film becomes difficult is in (a) the lack of resolution to the central mystery of the tapes and (b) finding a meaning. If you want a typical thriller, slowly unraveling who left the tapes and why before finally revealing the full truth in the finale, you’re simply going to be disappointed. However, the film’s interesting examination of the relationship between entertainment and reality is worth paying attention to.

The film’s central character, Georges Laurent, is a television show host, hosting a book chat show. Every step of the way, we hear references to how odd his fans are and the strange actions that they would undertake, leading everyone to think that they are likely to be responsible for the tapes. There are layers of interest just in this simple fact. His job is to help facilitate discussion among other people about books, another type of media. Even the discussion he provides to the public is not entirely honest—we see him working to edit the show, making an extreme change to the point one of his guests is making, in order to keep the show from becoming “too theoretical.” It’s a cynical point about the realities of entertainment, but it’s also an important part of the theme of the film. As the plot unfolds, we learn that Georges grew up in privilege and—in a rather oblique plot point—got a servant boy his parents had adopted sent away out of only child jealousy and that boy is now a man living nearby. Georges is convinced that this man, Majid, is seeking a noticeably theatrical sort of revenge against him, and unraveling with the strain of his own past. Haneke includes nothing in the film that doesn’t somehow comment on the nature of the relationship between entertainment and reality, crafting a wonderfully focused film even if its meaning is not too readily apparent.

Visually, Haneke doesn’t take the kinds of chances a filmmaker like Lynch or David Cronenberg does. He and cinematographer Christian Berger provide a look that is simple and coolly-colored for the most part, only providing any real dynamics when using carefully placed shadows and high-contrast lighting in flashbacks to Georges’s past. However, they also place great emphasis on camera placement and composition. The film begins with a very long shot of the front of the Laurents’ home that does nothing to draw our attention to the off-center entrance, keeping us disconnected from the home and its inhabitants and reminding us that we are voyeurs into their lives and still not really seeing their lives and also setting up for the rest of the film a constant disconcerting feeling that every long, immobile shot might be a tape rather than “reality.” They continue to defy traditional composition rules for the remainder of the film, most memorably on the closing shot that might provide an answer to the mystery but doesn’t draw any attention to it. It’s a startling comment about how much is spoon-fed to the audience in traditional filmmaking that is only heightened by the narrative.

The acting is good across the board, though few have much to do. Daniel Auteuil has some weak moments but is generally fine in a lead role that hides most of its complexities underneath the surface. Juliette Binoche is a real standout as his wife, imbuing a character who could have been lifeless and one-note with an incredible depth and feeling. Her growing exasperation with Georges throughout the film is played with enough subtlety as to befit a film that is so filled with comments about the nature of film, but is definitely noticeable. The real scene-stealer in the film, though, is Annie Girardot, who only has one scene as Georges’s mother, but is absolutely riveting in a scene that could have been painful to watch but for her simply mesmerizing performance. It’s difficult to be noticeable in such a small part that seemingly has so little to do, but Girardot gives us a beautiful picture of who she is and exactly how she feels about Georges and much else in her past.

A note about the score: There isn’t one. It’s a perfect disconcerting fit for the film’s themes. Too often, filmmakers use a score as a crutch. Going without one can be extraordinarily effective when done for the right reason, and Haneke did that perfectly with this film.

All in all, this was an exemplary film. There’s hardly anything bad to say about it and its layers of complexity will continue to intrigue long after viewing. If Haneke’s most recent film, Amour (France/Germany/Austria 2012), is anywhere near this good, it deserved the remarkable amount of praise it received last year.

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Mini-Review: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Tomas Alfredson, France/UK/Germany 2011)

I don’t have enough to say about this film, so I’m reviewing it very briefly.

     I had some optimism for this film.

John le Carre’s work is difficult to adapt to film because it is so intricate and complex. His novels aren’t long, but that owes more to the plainness of his prose than the plots and characterizations, which are so deeply layered as to be difficult even in writing. That means that boiling them down to film length can easily render them downright impenetrable. However, Tomas Alfredson’s last film, Låt den rätte komma in (Sweden 2009), was a surprisingly interesting work that didn’t overcomplicate itself. It wasn’t groundbreaking or anything, but it was fun to watch and Alfredson didn’t turn his ludicrous plot into something ridiculous. That film did not show a lot of unconventional visual imagination, but it also did not need it, so I felt like Alfredson was a director with some promise for the future for having done that correctly.

What Alfredson ended up doing in this film, though, is falling into a typical adaptation trap: he tried to follow the source material no matter how far down the rabbit hole that took him. While the novel is not as labyrinthine as some of le Carre’s other work, it’s still not the stuff James Bond films are made of, and yet Alfredson made little attempt to simplify the plot. The British miniseries look of the film did not help, as there was nothing to keep the viewer’s attention other than the impenetrable plot. It still wasn’t terrible, but it definitely wasn’t actually good.

Further, Gary Oldman’s much-praised lead performance was a flat, mumbling performance of a one-note character. It wasn’t bad, because he had almost nothing to work with, but it also wasn’t anything special.
If you’re a big spy movie fan, it’s probably still worth a watch, but otherwise it wasn’t special.

Movie Review: “Lincoln” (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012)

Abraham Lincoln has been a subject of extraordinary interest lately, for obvious political reasons. Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln appeared within the last decade, and the films Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (Richard Schenkman, USA 2012), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, USA 2012) and Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012) all came out in 2012. Lincoln was the big deal of the lot. It was the serious costume drama in opposition to the big-budget joke of Vampire Hunter and the small-budget copycat joke of Zombies. It was the film starring “serious actors” Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field as the Lincolns, as opposed to Benjamin Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Bill Oberst Jr. and Debra Crittenden. It even had a star director in Steven Spielberg instead of Richard Schenkman or Timur Bekmambetov.

However, there were always reasons to worry about Lincoln. First, it was clear Oscar bait. Two-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg had directed Best Picture nominees twice in the last seven years while two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis had been nominated for Best Actor for half of the films he had made in the previous decade. Screenwriter Tony Kushner was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for his only screenplay work before. That’s a recipe for guaranteed award consideration, but not for interesting filmmaking. Second, Spielberg had not made a truly worthwhile film in over three decades. Third, Lincoln is one of the most mythologized figures in American history, one whose flaws have disappeared in history. Hagiographies make for dull work, and it’s difficult to imagine a biography of Lincoln in the United States that does not fall into hagiography. Finally, the politically-outspoken Spielberg seemed to be making the film about a particular political battle with an eye toward making a point in favor of President Obama. Political filmmaking can still be interesting, but it often becomes a muddled mess that’s too busy praising or attacking its primary target to become anything cohesive, and Spielberg’s lack of interesting work in recent years suggested that he was not likely to avoid that trap.

Unfortunately, the warning signs ended up being accurate. Spielberg’s film is a political animal intended to make the point that moderation is sometimes required to achieve even extreme goals, but it loses its focus often and muddles its own point. Spielberg and Kushner, befitting the former’s obsession with making films about the value of family, could not resist the temptation to insert family drama surrounding the Lincolns’ oldest son that has nothing whatsoever to do with the film’s point. It also continues past the passage of the 13th Amendment to suggest that the greatest champion of racial equality (in the film’s world) was acting out of self-interest because of his own interracial romance with his housekeeper and show Lincoln’s assassination, though in typical Spielberg style the assassination itself is not present but instead the President’s young son’s reaction to it. Fully 1/2 of the film is disconnected from its point, but there is no other point that ties together a larger segment of the film. It’s really just that unfocused. The sense of a lack of focus is even increased by the film’s lack of flow–it feels like a series of scenes rather than a cohesive unit.

Visually, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski continue to show the same lack of imagination they have shown together since they began working together with Schindler’s List (USA 1993). As are all big-budget “serious” movies these days, the film is very dark, filled with low-key lighting and little bright color. Occasional scenes emphasize the  journey out of the dark, hate-filled past of race relations with darkened rooms that include bright open windows with white curtains, an obvious but still fairly effective technique that simply shows up too rarely. It’s a film that you could listen to without watching and lose little.

The acting is quite good, though frankly no one has a part that requires much. The perfect man that is President Lincoln requires nothing other than a good-humored grin and a high-pitched voice with a southern accent from Daniel Day-Lewis. He does what is required of him, and as usual mumbles through enough of his lines that he becomes difficult to understand. However, in a rare show of restraint, he doesn’t take his character over the top. That’s a decent performance, if one that any number of actors could give. James Spader gives an enjoyable performance as uncouth but excellent lobbyist that’s just reminiscent enough of Alan Shore that it’s difficult to ignore the similarity. David Strathairn, as usual, is excellent in a role that requires little. However, Sally Field stood out in a negative way. Her over-the-top caterwauling was frankly annoying–it was as if she decided to replace all of Daniel Day-Lewis’s bad habits with her own version of them, and her completely flat affect when not caterwauling turned Mary Todd Lincoln into a self-parody of insanity that could not be believed. It’s a shame, because hers is the only really weak performance, but it was terrible.

John Williams, another long-time Spielberg film-mate, also showed rare restraint, though perhaps his was not such a good idea. Much of the film lacked any score at all, and the dramatic moments that Williams would often emphasize with a powerful fanfare were instead met with simple, quiet lines that could just as easily have been gone. His score never gets in the way, but it also never works.

All told, Lincoln is a poor film. It’s a well-acted but poorly-thought-out exercise in hagiography that has no purpose and nothing of artistic interest. It’s everything that I was afraid it might be.