MUBI brings you a great new film every day.  Start your 7-day free trial today!

Caché: Storytelling through Omission and the Long Take

By theextr​emegeek on January 3, 2010

This is an essay I wrote with a friend a couple weeks back. We weren’t able to give it the attention it needed, so thematically is more sporadic than I would like.

The editing in Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Caché illustrates a process by which the characters repress their guilt. Through a dissection of particular cuts it can be studied that Haneke creates a narrative that remains intentionally evasive to illustrate his observations on individual and social repressions of guilt. Michael Hudecek’s editing distracts from the narrative, emotionally distancing its audience forcing them to be more critical of Haneke’s observations.

Caché tells the story of Georges Laurent and his family who repeatedly receive videotapes, anonymous phone calls and crudely drawn images. Georges believes that the perpetrator is an Algerian man named Majid who George’s family had decided to adopt 44 years prior, just after Majid’s parents went missing following the 1961 Algerian massacre in Paris. However, for reasons never fully revealed, Georges’ parents sent him to an orphanage. It is never clear if it is Majid who is sending the tapes, Majid’s unnamed son, or someone entirely different, possibly even Haneke. Haneke transcends the mystery genre by making the film about Georges’ guilt, marginalizing the importance of the voyeur’s identity.

Ellipses

Haneke and editor Michael Hudecek omit large sections of the story to shape an incomplete narrative; in technical terms these omissions are referred to as ellipses. According to Barsam an ellipsis is an “omission of time––the time that separates one shot from another––to create dramatic or comedic impact” (406). Hudecek uses ellipses for Haneke’s symbolic ends. By removing whole expletive sections of the narrative, Hudecek creates ambiguity, making it impossible to definitively say one person is more at fault than another for events that have occurred, or that those events even happened at all. Therefore, Haneke makes an observation rather than a statement about the subjectivity of their characters’ guilt. He does not condemn any of the characters for their actions, but shows how each of them copes with what they have done, or at least what is suggested they have done. It is open to the viewer’s interpretation to decide if each character is lying or not. It is unclear if Majid was the one who sent the tapes, just as it is uncertain whether or not Georges reveals all of the events that occurred between he and Majid when they were children. Haneke’s observations illustrate individuals who repress their guilt through denial, and the ellipses symbolize this repression as it prevents the viewer from confirming or refuting a character’s purity because the story and dialogue in between edits is not shown.
In one scene, Hudecek cuts from Pierre intimately comforting Anne in a café to a long take of a television in Anne’s living room before she arrives home, apparently later that night. It is ambiguous whether she slept with Pierre or not. However, the extreme comfort shown in the previous scene between the two characters suggests the possibility. This ellipsis makes it possible for Anne to deny her guilt of an affair and only remain suspect to the audience. Later in the film Anne says to her son, “What have you got into your head? That Pierre and me…that’s absurd!” Haneke omits the evidence that would condemn or absolve her in the audience’s eyes, but this ellipsis symbolizes Anne’s repression of her guilt.

In another cut, one of Hudecek’s ellipses represents a character’s repression of information that might condemn him under the jury of the audience. Georges gives his wife, Anne, information that the audience knew he had been withholding. He informs her that he told his parents Majid coughed up blood, and Majid scared him. He then says, “Slitting his own throat for that, a heck of a twisted joke, don’t you think?” Briefly after Georges speaks to Anne, Hudecek cuts to Georges walking into his office building. Just as Georges suggests, the notion that Majid “wants revenge” for Georges’ tattletale forty-four years ago seems absurd. However, the relationship between the two boys is hinted at being seemingly more complex at an earlier point in the film when Georges first visits Majid at his apartment, so the audience can intuit that there is still more information about his relationship with Majid he has not revealed to his wife or the audience before the cut. The cut between this intimate scene and Georges entering his work building may be the omission of Georges’ entire confession to Anne, where the full scope of his relationship with Majid is revealed, and possibly the clues which would allow the audience to deduct who the voyeur is. Hudecek edits Haneke’s film in this manner so the viewer will focus on the process in which the characters repress information from the audience, other characters, or themselves. If Haneke would have given us explicit information as to who had sent the tapes and why then the viewer would be more engaged by Haneke’s narrative rather than his psychological observations.

The ellipses in Caché serve a larger function in the film than just represented by the process in which the characters repress their guilt. There are often less telling ellipses throughout the film that cut from one scene to another; the narrative time between the images could be as long as a day or even a month, it is never explicitly stated. These general ellipses, as well as the ones discussed previously, are intended by Haneke to achieve his glaciation effect, which promotes “critical distance and intellectual analysis of emotional manipulation effected through character psychology and viewer identification” (Grundmann). In one edit, Hudecek cuts from a tense conversation between Anne and Georges during the evening about the second tape they received to a long take of Anne clearing the table during the middle of the day. This ellipsis possibly omits a large gap of time, or it might be a cut to the following day. Either way, Hudecek inserts the ellipsis to Haneke’s advantage as the edit disorients and therefore distances the viewer. It also works for more obvious reasons, namely establishing a tightly knit pace. In Caché, the glaciation established by the editing forces the viewer to be more critically engaged in assessing the process by which characters repress their guilt, and particular ellipses directly represent this repression.

Long Take

In the opening frame of the film we find ourselves as voyeurs of Georges’ household. This establishing shot, which depicts Georges’ bourgeois home and street-front, eventually reveals itself to the audience as the images from a stationary “security camera” when Georges and his wife, Anne, play a tape of the same images several minutes later on their television. This opening shot’s length is a little under three minutes, and in technical terms it is referred to as a long take, which is defined by Barsam as an edit that can last anywhere from one minute to ten (409). Haneke’s long takes instigate a feeling of surveillance. The film is shot as if an omniscient perspective is constantly roving around the characters, watching, and then relaying information to the viewer, but omitting telling hubs and satellites between these long takes. This omniscient perspective could be said to be Haneke; whose long takes distance the viewer from passive spectatorship, and allow he or she to critically reflect on process by which the characters repress their guilt.

In the final interaction between Majid and Georges, Georges is lead into a room where Majid slits his throat. This scene is shot with a long take as Georges pauses and then slowly walks in and out of the stationary camera’s frame after Majid cuts himself. About this scene film scholar Karen Ritzenhoff says, “The wide cinematic frame articulates the sensory distance. The scene is represented in a long shot, similar to the other prominent sequences in the film. The viewer remains detached” (144). It is true the cinematographic properties of this scene are elemental in establishing the audiences’ detachment. However, Hudecek’s long take effectively enhances the cinematography. The long take in this scene has little to do with Hudeck’s editing as its time length is innate to the cinematographer’s composition, but Hudeck could have chosen to cut the subsequent scene more quickly, which would have increased the viewer’s pacification. In this scene, the long take distances the viewer from both of the characters while heightening the viewer’s shock. This long take forces the viewer to thoroughly think about how Majid’s suicide will affect George’s conscience as he slowly walks in an out of the frame for an entire minute. This shot also creates anxiety as the viewer begins to wonder if he will attempt to repress this visit with Majid just as he had done with his first one.

Haneke’s use of the long take includes a two-minute shot where the news is shown on a television in the background of an image behind Georges and Anne who are discussing where their son could be. This take’s length gives the audience significant time to process what is happening in the scene. The long take distances the audience from the characters as it allows them to excessive time to scan the shot. On the television, a newsreel on the Iraq war is playing. The television narrator suggests openness as a resolution to a particular conflict, and an interviewee says that “operating under the same rules of engagement will ensure better homogeneity and better coordination.” In this take Anne comes home from an evening with Pierre and is spiteful towards Georges when he asks her where she has been. The two are in conflict because in an earlier scene Georges had not been open with her and repressed information about his past from her. The length of this shot allows the viewer to absorb a considerable amount of information. Had the take been any shorter we would not receive Haneke’s commentary on the situation, given through the news, that a policy of openness would resolve their domestic tension. They have completely repressed any guilt for the incident through the engrossment of their own concerns. We are able to identify this as viewers because Haneke deliberately distances us in order to give the audience an objective position in relation to characters within the film.

Through long takes we often find ourselves alienated from the characters within the film. This disconnection subsequently generates a lack of empathy in the viewer for the characters. Through the shot length, Haneke and Hudecek heighten the sense of subjectivity in the conviction of guilty characters throughout the film. The viewer is not moved to identify or support any particular character because of the distance the editing establishes. Cinema scholar Jonathan Thomas makes a note about Haneke’s glaciation effect, “When Haneke cuts from one image to the next (a transition that in his cinema because an even, since he normally adheres to the long-take sequence shot), we are led to question the status of what we see as a matter of course. Put differently, we are, as spectators constantly distanced, just as we are persistently invited to occupy the subject position of what Raymond Bellour called a “pensive spectator” (84). Our objective distance from the content creates a more subjective interpretation of who is to be judged. Is Majid sending the tapes or not? Is Georges lying about what he did to Majid? Is Anne having an affair? Is Pierrot leaving the drawings because he’s upset? Each character can be interpreted as innocent only to the degree that they are guilty. Through the evasive editing Haneke gives us just enough clues to make an argument for either side.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard. Looking at Movies An Introduction to Film, Second Edition ( Set with DVD). New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Print.
Grundmann, Roy. "Auteur de force: Michael Haneke’s “cinema of glaciation”. | Goliath Business News." Goliath: Business Knowledge On Demand. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-6396246/Auteur-de-force-Michael-Haneke.html>.
Ritzenhoff, Karen. “Visual competence and readign the recorded past: the paradigm shift from analogue to digital video in Michael Haneke’s film Caché.” Visual Studies 23.2 (2008): 136-46. Print.
Thomas, Jonathan. “Michael Haneke’s New(s) images.” The Oxford Art Journal (2008): 80-85. Print.