Michael Haneke is contemporary cinema's master of menace: the sort of menace that sneaks up on educated, well-heeled types snugly-and smugly-ensconced in their daily round of work and pleasure. In Cache, his latest provocation, the threat takes the form of Third World rage directed at Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) a prosperous literary talk-show host, who lives with his editor wife Anna (Juliette Binoche) and preteen son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) in a pricey duplex on a tranquil urban street.
The film opens with a disquieting fixed-frame, long take of the family's home. A couple's voices murmur offscreen, as we realize we're looking at a videotape of their home that an unknown person has dropped on their doorstep. The family pursues its routines, but new tapes continue to arrive, revealing that the perp knows intimate details of Georges' childhood. Then, racheting up the tension, comes a clumsy drawing of a child spewing blood-which is also sent to Pierrot at school.
As Georges attempts to confront the person he believes is behind this and understand his motives, his son acts out and his marriage begins to crumble. Eventually it becomes clear through memories and dreams that as a child, Georges wronged and fatally destabilized a boy who was orphaned when his parents were killed in a 1961 massacre of Algerians.
Perhaps Haneke's most mainstream film to date, Cache is a stealth bomb with a dark secret at its heart. With every development, the film plucks the viewer's nerves, upping the atmosphere of surveillance and paranoia. (At the screening I attended, shocker plot points drew audible gasps.) That Georges and Anna's book-and-video-lined home is cozily luxurious makes it seem all the more vulnerable. Haneke's abiding concern is the burdened conscience of the privileged vis-à-vis Third World have-nots. Just to have, in his universe, is to be vulnerable-and guilty. "Terrorize me and my family and you'll regret it," Georges warns his persecutor, a threat that opens out the film's perspective, along with newscasts on Iraq that constantly flicker on the family TV.
Thanks to Haneke's sure hand (he nabbed Best Director at Cannes) and polished work from Auteuil and Binoche, none of this turns didactic. Deliberately slow and quiet, a riposte to the ADD that prevails in studio films, Cache is mesmerizing; it's as much about Haneke's manner of framing what's onscreen as the events themselves, sucking the viewer into his uncompromising vision. And don't expect this take-no-prisoners director to tie up loose ends. In a closing shot of kids leaving Pierrot's school is lodged, almost unnoticed in a corner of the frame, what is perhaps the most disturbing image of all.