How to Be Single
Think of "How to Be Single" as a cinematic Whitman’s Sampler: There are enough pieces that work to offset the pieces that don’t.
What if there's not an answer? What if Michael Haneke's "Cache" is a puzzle with only flawed solutions? What if life is like that? What if that makes it a better film? I imagine many viewers will be asking such questions in a few years, now that Martin Scorsese has optioned it for an American version. We can ask them now.
There's only one way to discuss such matters, and that's by going into detail about the film itself. I hesitate to employ the hackneyed word "spoiler" here, because no one in his right mind should read this without experiencing the film. I won't even bother with a plot synopsis. You've seen it.
The mystery, of course, involves the identity of the person or persons sending the videos which disrupt the bourgeois routine of a Parisian family. The interim solution by many viewers seems to be that Pierrot, the evasive and distant son, is their source. This despite the fact that the movie also places suspicion on Majid, the childhood victim of Georges, and on Majid's own son.
They would all have a motive. As Majid tells Georges, his life and his education were forever changed by Georges' actions as a five-year-old boy. Georges felt threatened by his parent's decision to adopt the Algerian orphan, and lied in telling them the boy was spitting up blood -- an alarming signal of tuberculosis. In a wretched scene, observed in long shot from (presumably) Georges' POV, social workers drag Majid away from the only home he's known.
Only Majid would know that happened -- and Georges, who isn't talking. Therefore, only Majid's knowledge could have informed the childish drawings of the cartoon figure with blood spurting from its mouth and neck. The three people who could have drawn them are Pierrot, Majid, and Majid's son. This son is not given a name in the film, so let's refer to him by the actor's name, Walid.
That's clear enough. What muddies the water is the film's last shot, showing Pierrot leaving his school and meeting Majid's son, several years older, on the steps. These two people should not know one another. Many viewers, seeing them meet, come to the conclusion that the two sons did it together. Yet we have no idea whether this is the latest of several meetings, or a first meeting, sought by "Walid" after the death of his father. It's true they shouldn't know each other. But what does it prove that they do?
Haneke, in an interview, is amused that about half the audience fails to even notice the two sons on the steps. His doctor friend, the first person he showed the movie to, missed it. He can't be blamed. Given basic rules of composition, our attention is focused on a point in foreground just to the right of center--a woman with her back turned, waiting for school to be let out, dressed in slightly lighter colors. Walid enters from right and moves diagonally up the stairs to join Pierrot in left background. The composition is a subtle achievement: Most of us notice them, but Haneke does nothing obvious to draw attention to them.
Why and how do these two know one another? Pierrot at the end of the film should not know anything at all about Majid and Walid. Walid had to have learned about Georges from his father. So he would have been the one to seek out the younger boy. But when? Recently, after the suicide of his father? Some time ago? If back then, to what purpose? To plan the scheme, presumably. Walid would have found a disturbed adolescent alienated from his parents. Georges in particular is shown as critical and cool toward his son. Pierrot might have been open to a suggested collaboration.
How did they hit upon the notion of sending anonymous videos, if they did? We will never know. But Walid must have sent them, with or without Pierrot. His access to Majid's apartment proves that. On the school stairs, Majid and Walid have a conversation with body language that is suggestive--but of what? I believe but can't prove it indicates this is not their first meeting. What is important in Haneke's use of the shot is: These two know one another. That's what we can say for sure.
All right, now. We have two characters with motives, and together they would have the means to make the videos. It is likely that Walid physically placed the cameras(s). Pierrot is under closer supervision. We cannot be sure of his whereabouts at every time in the movie (even his parents are not). My guess is that Haneke deliberately kept some uncertainty. In any event, Wajid is free at any time to drop packages, ring doorbells, and make anonymous telephone calls. Pierrot is free much of the time to help. Pierrot is not, however, strictly speaking, necessary.
Other questions arise. Where is the first camera hidden? Georges appears in one video to be looking directly at it. Haneke elsewhere in the film gives us a good look at where it must have been. Somewhere on the side of that building, perhaps hidden in some plantings. That would imply access to the building, but let's not even go there. The point is, we can clearly see that a camera could apparently not be hidden there. It couldn't? Well, a camera was. Case closed. And it must have required an electrical outlet, since it had to run for long periods. We can eliminate the possibility that it's motion-sensitive, because it runs when there's no motion.
The point, I think, is not how the family was watched, but that it was watched. Our difficulty in figuring out how is not Haneke's problem.
The childish drawings. Who made them? Could be Walid, Pierrot, or, not to rule him out, Majid. Their style is deliberately that of a child of five. Their subject is designed to evoke a traumatic event at that age, which could be linked, too, to Georges' memory of Majid chopping off the rooster's head. I saw chickens beheaded in my grandmother's garage at that age, and can vividly remember it now. In the 1940s you might bring home a live chicken from a cousin's farm and kill it for dinner, especially with postwar rationing.
Now, then. Certainly Walid. Probably Pierrot working with him. Probably not Majid; his protestation of innocence completely convinced me. How did you feel? We come to the smoking gun I referred to in my review at "around" the 20:39 point in the DVD. I was thinking specifically of the boy with blood in his mouth, and the shots on either side are also crucial. As the critic Michael Mirasol writes in his discussion of the film, a preceding shot "refers to the spot where Georges' house is being recorded (the film's opening shot). It has to be a POV, but from whose?
"The film tricks us (as it did me) with the next brief shot of a boy with a bleeding mouth. If you watch carefully, the camera pans across the room to the bleeding boy by the window. This is not Georges' adult home, it's from his childhood home. The living room in this sequence is the same as the same sequence later in the film where Georges is leaving his mother's house. The boy I believe is Majid, from Georges' childhood memories.
He continues: "Think about it. Shot #3 I believe is from Pierrot's POV, looking at the spot where he can record his videos. The shot involving the bleeding boy reveals why Georges must have wanted Majid to be taken away. As a boy, he must have discovered Majid bleeding, and being young, did not understand what his condition meant, leading to the film's disturbing revelations."
Well, yes and no. To begin with, there is no evidence of who the POV shot belongs to, although Mirasol and many other viewers assume it is Pierrot's. In my mind it's very unlikely that Pierrot took the videos, although I'm convinced he knew about them. But the shots around 20:39 establish a connection between the tapes and the childhood experience of Majid. What is the origin of the shot of the bleeding boy? Majid's memory? George's memory? Pierrot's visualization of something told him by Walid? We cannot be sure. Haneke specifically avoids making us sure.
So. We have a good idea of what happened on the farm in the childhoods of Majid and Georges. We know the videos exist. We know making them must have involved Walid and probably Pierrot. We cannot be sure of the method, but the method is beside the point. Does the "smoking gun" at 20:39 establish a connection between Majid's childhood and the present story? Yes, but we cannot be exactly sure whose memories are involved. How in fact do we know it's not Majid's own, and has nothing to do with the POV shot immediately before?
It functions, in any event, as apparent proof that Georges didn't make up the TB story from thin air. Majid did cough blood. But wait. How do we know that? The shot is of a past event, and all past events in the film are seen only from Georges' POV. Therefore, it must be Georges' memory, or his memory of a visualization inspired by his story -- because how likely is it that Majid and he were in the same bathroom in the middle of the night? We have no objective evidence that Majid ever had TB. And the POV from the window could also be Georges', trying to discover where a camera was concealed so he didn't see it.
Let's pull back to consider the whole film. Much of it involves the relationship between Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche). The tapes breed discord in their marriage. Anne suspects Georges, rightly, of concealing things from her. He cannot trust her with her his childhood memories. He doesn't want them himself. The film recalls an incident during the Algerian War when the bodies of hundreds of Algerian immigrants were found floating in the Seine. Among them may have been Majid's parents, who went to Paris to join a demonstration and were never seen again. This tragedy has been all but erased from the French public's memory. It doesn't want them.
But those things happened. The past is always with us, just as it is always with Majid and Georges, whose lives have been so certainly shaped by the past. And the message of the tapes is not so much that someone is watching, but that someone sees. Who this is, and how and why it is, will change with the generations. But the sight will remain.
In his interview on the DVD, Haneke seems almost jovial as he mentions various theories about his film and how the film seems to deflate them. You can never be sure, he says -- in life, as well. Bad things happen and have bad consequences. It is impossible to sift back through history to account for them. The laying of blame may be clear, but the evidence trail is not. "Cache" resists a simple solution. There are still other possibilities. One, however bizarre it may seem, is that Georges himself is somehow responsible for the tapes. I think that's hardly possible, but it can't entirely be ruled out.
An unwritten code of film is that when it is important to know who did something, it must be a character in the film, unless that character can be clearly eliminated. I'll rule out Georges. That leaves almost certainly Walid, probably Pierrot, and to a very uncertain degree Majid. The only other possibility is -- none of the above, but someone none of the characters is aware of. In the real world, that would be possible. The film itself would necessarily be unaware of this observer, and could see only the consequences. The chances of that are vanishingly slight, but with Michael ("You can never know") Haneke, it can't be completely ruled out. Consider his current success with "The White Ribbon." "The children did it," I hear. How can anyone be sure of that?
What was Haneke's purpose with "Cache?" I suspect it was to inspire just such questions as we're having. We saw the film. It has no fancy footwork. The shots and editing are clear. With all of our training from other movies, we assume they will add up and yield to our analysis. They add up all too well, but produce no certain solution. If I told you "Walid" (Majid's son) is the only person I know for sure was involved, you will no doubt inform me why I am wrong. Majid's son has not been been fingered as the guilty one in any reviews I know about. Most people assume it was Pierrot, or the two working together. I believe I've ruled out Pierrot as a solo act.
Once I read your comments I'll know for sure, but right now I fear I've made an error in my reasoning, and that the film has no provable solution at all. As Haneke says, no matter what you come up with, there's a flaw. And yet nothing in this film is impossible. These are the people, it happened to them. These are the events, they took place. No explanation is satisfactory.
In life, there are situations like that. For me, the murder of John F. Kennedy is one. All of the explanations of that assassination are excellent at one thing: Pointing out the errors in all the other explanations. The brilliance of Oliver Stone's "JFK" is how it caters to our conviction that the true story has never been told -- no, not even by Stone. What Haneke has done, here and in other films, is demolish our faith in rational analysis. It would be fascinating to see him take on Sherlock Holmes.
Scorsese has his work cut out for him in making his film. It will not be a "remake" any more than Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant" is. It will be a Scorsese film. Assuming he retains the broad outline, he can (a) solve the mystery, or (b) leave the mystery hanging, as I believe Haneke does. Can you get away with that in a Hollywood film, with Leonardo DiCaprio already attached as Georges? Will the mass American movie going public let him get way with it? If anyone can, maybe Scorsese can. He'll try to be clever enough to conceal that he got away with it.
Here is my Great Movies review of "Cache."
Michael Mirasol's blog entry on the film.
[The image at the top is from Michael Bach's website Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena. He suggests: "Stare at the centre of the figure for a while. Some 'scintillating' activity will build up in the violet and blue annuli. Some observers also report a circular rotation within these regions; things will begin to "run around in circles."]
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