There are great suspense directors and then there's Michael Haneke, who exerts such complete control over an audience's emotions that there are times when it seems like no one is breathing, like he's got a hand squeezing on everyone's throat. Violence sits like a coiled beast at the heart of his movies, and though he's determined to depict it pointedly and responsiblysometimes to the point of playing the schoolmarm, as in the otherwise brilliant Funny GamesHaneke knows how to make it count. One matter-of-fact shock in his masterful new thriller Caché is likely to leave the most jaded viewers gasping for air, and it's owed entirely to Haneke's ability to sustain pressure without relief. Where other thriller or horror directors constantly build and release tension at regular intervals, Haneke just keeps on slowly ratcheting up the stakes until the movie snaps like a rubber band, quick and stinging.
Far from a mere technical achievement, Caché operates on several different levels, from a nasty critique of bourgeois complacency to a potent allegory on French-Algerian relations. With echoes of the first two reels of David Lynch's Lost Highway, the film begins with Parisian couple Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche receiving a videotape that's nothing but a long static shot of the outside of their apartment. As new tapes arrive on the porchsome wrapped in disturbing, child-like drawingsthe images start to open up into a voyeuristic narrative that stretches back into Auteuil's past. His concerns deepen when he comes to suspect that he's being punished for his youthful mistreatment of an Algerian boy. But the question is, who's sending the tapes? And to what end?
Terror by videotape isn't the most novel concept for a thriller, but Caché isn't The Ring: Nothing on the tapes is particularly suggestive or frightening, yet Haneke succeeds in making an image as ordinary as the outside of a building seem fraught with menace. And the tapes, in turn, open up a chasm within the marriage that heightens Auteuil and Binoche's vulnerability and creates another layer of tension that put the household on edge. It says something when a joke at a dinner party counts as the film's second-biggest jolt. As political allegory, Caché is an uncharacteristically blunt take on the sins of the father and their effect on the younger generation, but that doesn't mean that Haneke hasn't tucked more subtle secrets and revelations in obscure corners of the frame. Look sharp at the final shot, or a big one will slip right on by.