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Ambiguous French Cinema: Don’t You Love It?

Ambiguity – if there ever were a definition of truly great French cinema – it would be ambiguity. You know you’ve seen a great French film when you get to the last frame and you say to yourself, “That’s it?” and “What was that all about?” This is the typical knee-jerk reaction for many first-time viewers.

We watched Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche this weekend in CACHE (Hidden), a story about a TV talk show host and his wife who are terrorized by surveillance videos. First they think the videos are scare tactics that will eventually lead to the kidnapping of their son. If this were an American film, this would be the natural progression – stalker seeks revenge (for some real or imagined snub by the hero), kidnaps kid, destroys the relationship between husband and wife, destroys husband’s career – or tries to, but the hero’s determination to save his family – and his job gives him the guts and smarts to overcome a vengeful lunatic – that would be the gist of the American plot.

However, in CACHE, there is no hero, only martyrs. There are many reasons why CACHE is so powerful, but particularly because it starts off as such a ‘cliche’ of what one might expect of a French film – the typical Parisian neighborhood, the typical well-to-do Parisian family with a clean-cut kid (with whom the parents are totally out of sync). And, of course, there’s a buried secret.

Without giving away the whole story, I think one of the aspects of CACHE which adds to its cinematic power is its social commentary on the painful history of North African immigrants trying to remain whole in Parisian society. One of the major characters in CACHE is the orphaned son of Algerian immigrant parents who had been killed during a protest rally in Paris. (This historical note is actually based on an event the October 17 Massacre of 1961 where protesters were drowned in the Seine River).

Now a TV talk show host, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) has long since forgotten the orphaned child who once lived on his family’s farm. Nevertheless this ‘missing person’ has left an indelible imprint of guilt on a man who goes through the motions of a perfectly well adjusted – life with all the accoutrements of success, masking an inner life void of real communication and trust.

Whether one agrees with how director Michael Haneke handled this plot – is it too heavy-handed? Is it too politically correct? Has he created class caricatures? etc, one has to marvel at the fluidity between real time and video time, between nightmares and reality. At the end of the film, what I feel is great pity. Pity for the families, pity for the children, pity for the fathers who lack the courage or the self confidence to accept certain truths, to search forgiveness – and forgive themselves for the mistakes that are bound to happen in life.

At the same time, is this also a political statement suggesting that it’s time to search forgiveness from those that have been orphaned by street violence, by deportations, by malpractice, by unfettered domestic violence, by abandonment, by lack of acknowledgment?

Note: Only in 2001, did the French state officially acknowledge the massacre of 1961. On the other hand, the Oran massacre of 1962 has not yet been recognized by the Algerian state.

Go to St. Michel bridge if you want to visit the memorial plaque placed by Mayor Bertrand Delanoe in memory of the victims of this massacre (the number of victims has yet to be officially agreed-upon with numbers ranging form 30 to 300). Earlier that same year (1961) at least 11 police officers were killed, and 18 officers were injured due to bombings and attacks by the FLN in Paris and the neighboring suburbs.

The plaque reads:
“In memory of the many Algerians killed during the bloody repression of the peaceful demonstration of 17 October 1961”.

Official CACHE Site