Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Michael Haneke’s *Caché*: in the Event of Witness (Review)

But today Sinai is also, still in relation to the singular history of Israel, a name for modernity. Sinai, the Sinai: a metonymy for the border or frontier between Israel and other nations, a front and a frontier between war and peace, a provocation to think the passage between the ethical, the messianic, eschatology, *and* the political, at a moment in the history of humanity and of the Nation-State when the persecution of all these hostages – the foreigner, the immigrant (with or without papers), the exile, the refugee, those without a country, or a State, the displaced person or population (so many distinctions that call for careful analysis) – seems, on every continent, open to a cruelty without precedent.(64)
-- Jacques Derrida, from *Adieu, To Emmanuel Levinas*

Despite the revealing (however easy-to-miss) denouement of Michael Haneke’s *Caché*, the gaze of *Caché’s* camera remains a matter of mystery and concern for me. As an event of witness – of accusation surpassing accusation, alibi surpassing alibi and debt debt – it may be deserving of further consideration.

At a certain level we may read the gaze in terms of a work of psychoanalytic mourning: the working through of a historical trauma or return of a repressed content. At another we are no longer dealing with a trauma assignable among subjects: that, when he was 6, said character, George Laurent (played by Daniel Auteil), lied to his parents in order to prevent his family’s adoption of an Algerian boy (the character Majid) orphaned by the massacre of his parents and 200 other Algerians by French authorities in 1961. Certainly there is an all-too-understandable guilt in this childhood memory of Laurent’s, a guilt undoubtedly for the character to work through. And arguably, Laurent’s working through through memory-images (flashbacks) and transferential relationships with the other characters (the interviews with Laurent’s wife and mother being particularly poignant), is ostensibly what *Caché* is “about”. But does not *Caché* present another guilt, a guilt that we might call anarchic (being without beginning or cause) or primordial?

This second guilt could bring us back to certain key passages in Martin Heidegger’s *Being and Time*, where the philosopher discusses a guilt presupposing moral beings that grounds the factical subject and allows it to spring(-forth):

“Beings whose being is care cannot only burden themselves with factical guilt, but they *are* guilty in the ground of their being. This being guilty first gives the ontological condition for the fact that Da-sein can become guilty while factically existing. This essential being guilty is, equiprimordially, the existential condition of the possibility of the "morally" good and evil, that is, for morality in general and its possible factical forms. Primordial being guilty cannot be defined by morality because morality already presupposed it for itself.”

Likewise we may relate this guilt in Emmanuel Levinas’s work when he evokes “alibi” after Heidegger’s metaphysics in the initial pages of his 1961 opus, *Totality and Infinity*: “’The true life is absent.’ But we are in the world. Metaphysics arises and is maintained in this alibi.”

When Derrida eulogizes his master in his 1995 text for the philosopher, *Adieu, for Emmanuel Levinas*, he does so after this problem of guilt in terms of the relationship between politics and ethics, and specifically the ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel. For Derrida, each intends this guilt at the limits of their generosity for the world: to welcome, to greet, to speak (and write) hospitably; to be, mainly, an endlessly inviting host for the foreign and homeless:

“That a people, as a people, “should accept those who come and settle among them – even though they are foreigners,” would be the proof [*gage*] of a popular and public commitment [*engagement*], a political *res publica* that cannot be reduced to a sort of “tolerance,” unless this tolerance requires the affirmation of a “love” without measure. Levinas specifies immediately thereafter that this duty of hospitality is not only essential to a “Jewish thought” of the relationships between Israel and the nations. It opens the way to the humanity of the human in general. There is here, then, a daunting logic of election and exemplarity operating between the assignation of a singular responsibility and human universality – today one might even say *humanitarian* universality insofar as it would at least try, despite all the difficulties and ambiguities, to remain, in the form, for example, of a non-governmental organization, beyond Nation States and their politics.”(*Adieu*)

Is *Caché*, then, not a kind of allegory, as well as a cinematic evocation, of the guilt of hospitality Derrida cites after Levinas as a work of mourning in the face of political-juridicial failures of hospitality? This particular onto-political problem of hospitality I believe *Caché* to enact, however inadvertently, through the dynamics of its dramatic content as well its formal particulars.

The opening shot of *Caché* presents a long take of a suburban row house during which a man gets into a car and drives off. It is soon revealed that this footage has been taken by someone (never identified explicitly by the film) “terrorizing” the man (Laurent), his wife Anne Laurent (played by Juliette Binoche), and their son, Pierrot. Upon receiving a video tape of this footage (the opening shot is actually being watched in the diegesis by the couple) and a childish rendering of what appears a child throwing-up blood, the couple discusses who could have sent them the tape and drawing. It is curious, during this interview, the image that briefly flashes-up. An image of a boy sitting at a windowsill coughing, his mouth and nightshirt stained with blood.

Later in the film we of course discover that this image is of the young Majib. Yet a problem persists about the status of this image. The boy of this image, as opposed to the boy of Laurent’s family farmhouse and yard later, sits in the windowsill of Laurent’s house in the present of the film, and appears uncanny or ghostly in this respect – like a “presence” invading the house. Unlike the images of Majib from when he and Laurent were boys (however “made-up” these images might also be, and may actually call into question the status of the imagination *in* and *of* the film), the first image is inconsistent with the film’s narrative “actuality,” and therefore should be privileged as a unique image in the film: an image neither a flashback or remembered, but moreover like that of a dream or revelry. A pure image, dream-image or hallucination inviting the foreign boy into the home, conjuring the couple’s bedroom as inner-sanctum indicative of the self “at-home,” interiorized as it substitutes the other for the self taking hostage the self in the imagination: “For in the most general form it has assumed in the history of thought it appears as a movement going forth from a world that is familiar to us, whatever be the yet unknown lands that bound it or that hides it from view, from an “at home” [“chez soi”] which we inhabit, toward an alien outside-of-oneself [*hors de soir*], toward a yonder.”(*Totality and Infinity*, trans. Lingis)

*Caché* bears out an important movement of interiority to become responsible in the *Face* (Levinas) of an exterior. This struggle begins in the interiority of the atomized, Bourgeois family isolated from each other and from a world outside, terrorized suddenly by a repressed or hidden exterior. It carries forth, as well, the larger allegory of a national interiority (an interiority perhaps of all nations), and the specific complicitness of France in the tragedies of Algeria, Iraq and elsewhere -- the drowning of 200 Algerian immigrants in 1961, more specifically. The inverse (and absolute) movement of these interiors is the hospitality of Majib himself who, embodying the *Face* of ethical responsibility, ceaselessly allows Laurent to enter his domicile, and who responds to Laurent’s threats only with patience. A patience of survivorship and affirmation in suffering.

Much against the violence of interiority, there are the non-violent “threats” of exteriors: the tapes that “terrorize” the Laurent household, and whose origin is not intimated until the final, enigmatic, scene of the film when Pierrot and Majib’s son exchange pleasantries on the steps of Pierrot’s school. Although this concluding image would seem to spoil the mystery of the video tapes, both of their origin and their omniscient positioning of the viewer, there remains the wonderful sense throughout a viewing of *Caché* that the gaze of the video camera that tapes the Laurent household(s), and eventually Laurent’s quarrels with Majib holds a gaze beyond the human. A gaze of pure witness in the sense not that we are bearing a specific sin or crime for which the subject (Laurent) should feel guilty, but a general sin of inhospitality presupposing particular ones: the cruel lies of a 6 year old and the adult imagination of such lies; the inability to speak with understanding to his wife and son, his justifiable fear that Majib is blackmailing him, and his petty threats following this suspicion.

The peculiarity of these acts of witness that do not distinguish between video tape and digesis, and obscure the position of the viewer-witness as such, are punctuated by what we may consider the culminating moment of the film, and the film’s devastating allegory: when Majib, in the presence of Laurent (and very possibly the gaze of the hidden camera) takes his own life by cutting his throat with a pocket knife. It is difficult to convey the shock of this scene to someone who has not seen the film: how, like “actual” emergencies and disasters, the scene seems to move too slowly for the consciousness. Certainly there were any number of us who gasped when I saw the film in a crowded theater. The extremity of Majib’s act as it is recorded by *Caché*’s stationary camera for a long duration constitutes what we may call an event of witness: the awful timelessness, the ecstasy (in the literal sense of *ek-stasis* or being beside one’s self), of seeing the unthinkable occur, and the aftermath in which we can’t help but identify with Laurent’s traumatized pacing around the feet of Majib’s corpse.

After *Caché*’s event of witness, let us then say, then, that there are two guilts: there is the guilt of surviving another, of having what he or she doesn’t (in the economic sense of having and not having), of having done them a wrong, of being responsible for their death or harm (however inadvertently); and there is a guilt that only this gaze seemingly without perspective (and transcendent in this respect) can record -- a gaze of the hidden, the veiled of the “holy of holies”:

“The meshes or links of this chain bear all their force toward this point of rupture or translation: “ethics,” the word “ethics,” is only an approximate equivalent, a makeshift Greek word for the Hebraic discourse on the holiness of the separated (kadosh). Which is not to be confused – especially not – with sacredness. But in what language is this possible? The welcome of the separated in welcoming when it becomes necessary to greet the infinite transcendence of a separated holiness, to say yes at the moment of a separation, indeed of a departure that is not the contrary of an arrival – is it not this deference that inspires the breath of an *à-Dieu?*”(*Adieu*)

It is this gaze that presupposes the first moral-economic one, and which brings us back to the bad conscience of the world: the facts of Algeria, of dress codes against “the Veil,” of the carnage in Iraq. This second guilt initiates the first, however does not precede or succeed it being beyond time, eschatological, vertical and diachronous. And it is this guilt Levinas recognized as ungraspable, and in being ungraspable to be the very ground of a factical ethical affirmation not based upon self-care, not grounded as such, but a care for what is other -- alien in its singularity. It is perhaps the perceptive failure to respond adequately to this first guilt constuitive of an event of witness that may be the privileged experience of *Caché*; an experience that may effectively bring its viewer into a world for others, and further important debate about universal responsibility in our present moment.

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