There is a lovely French term, bourgeois-bohème (often abbreviated as "bobo"), used to describe someone of privileged living but rebellious, often intrepid ideals, which can be taken as either a compliment or plain evidence of what happens to people when they become financially successful (an American journalist unwittingly created the same portmanteau). The whiff of money and a carefree life are often enough to corrupt those who were rotten to begin with. But for those of us with no interest in what holes money can punch through the human soul, the price is much greater. Most people will succumb to money as most people will succumb to the allure of sensuality; after all, money and sex are the two easiest things in the world to enjoy. The bobos of the world are, however, caught between what they believe in and what is expected of them given their societal status: they will be sensitive to any charges of selling out, but equally empowered by the thought of using their influence to do good instead of buying furs and patronizing boutiques. In France, a country that still reads and was awarded for its diligence with the latest Nobel Prize winner, television has all the usual farces, police shows, and imbecilic pseudo-news programs, as well as something that the United States lacks – literary debates. As pretentious as they sound and sadistically boring to viewers without a good command of both spoken and written French, these shows are a mainstay of French culture even though many of the works discussed are not worth retaining in the dark forests of our memory (as most books, given the glut of mediocrity on the market, are better left untouched). Yet the mere fact of their existence is a very bobo event: expensive television (often prime) time oddly paired with the highest form of human inquiry. How very telling, then, that the host of such a program is the subject of this remarkable film.
Our hero – if that is really the right word – is Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), a plain French name for a plain French mind. Georges moderates a very popular literary program on television and his comfortable house in Paris's thirteenth arrondissement has wall-to-wall shelves of those wonderful Gallimard and Minuit editions so familiar to students of France. His wife Anne (a suddenly heavier Juliette Binoche) and twelve-year-old son Pierrot waft in and out of Georges's everyday routine, but his primary focus is the maintenance of his own golden reputation. This is a typically bobo concern: those who believe or once believed in bettering the world often see their success as a justification of their ideals, even if few of those ideals were preserved during their ascent. So Georges and Anne engage in their habitual dinner polemics with their guests – including one friend, Pierre (the late Daniel Duval), who clearly has eyes for Anne – until a strange package arrives. As is common for strange packages there is no return address, nor any clear indication of how it might have arrived on the Laurents' doorstep. Such an event is all the more disconcerting since the package only contains a cassette, and that cassette contains nothing but handheld footage of the house at whose doorstep it was left. Georges is visibly disturbed; Anne thinks one of Georges's loyal viewers has decided to stalk him; Pierrot is nowhere to be found; and nothing more is said until, of course, a second package with more footage appears a few days later. This time we get more information: a child's drawing of a stick figure spitting out what really does look like blood. Anne is confused and now suspects a prank; Georges, however, is terrified.
Childhood memories swirl and descend upon Georges like some serpentine mist and we begin to peer into his nightmares. He is perhaps six or seven with another boy his age, a boy from North Africa, a boy by the name of Majid. Majid's parents, we learn in snippets, were Algerian farmhands working for the Laurents when they were slain during this notorious Paris massacre. As a last favor, Majid was to be adopted by his parents' employers – something to which Georges, apparently obsessed with his reputation from an early age, was vehemently opposed. What happened then is revealed towards the end of the film, but Georges feels impelled enough by his conscience to track down Majid in his rent-controlled apartment and confront him about the matter. Majid denies any involvement, Georges leaves, and, soon enough, his nightmares become more visceral. A young Majid is now seen spitting blood and beheading a rooster, and in general doing everything he can to seem unadoptable, which makes about as much sense as Georges's claims to Anne that nothing is bothering him and he has taken no action on the tapes. It is here that Georges's true personality emerges. He crosses a street without looking and almost collides with a West African speeding along on his bicycle. Instead of acknowledging their mutual insouciance, perhaps more on his part as the pedestrian, Georges fulminates against this young immigrant who he feels does not belong in his world. Another tape appears and the secret is out: it is a film of Georges and Majid in Majid's apartment. Anne demands details and Georges provides the story of Majid's parents, his threats against Georges, and his eventual placement in an orphanage, all of which doesn't persuade Anne and shouldn't persuade us. Pierrot suddenly goes missing and Georges returns to Majid's apartment to accuse him of kidnapping. How perfect that as Georges's only son vanishes, we finally see Majid's child. A handsome, well-raised, and extremely polite young man, he harbors more than a little resentment towards Georges. Father and son both claim that Georges is way off base even as the son seems to be hiding behind a smirk; Pierrot returns the next day and says he spent the night at a friend's, although his parents never quite ask which friend; then Majid beckons Georges to visit him one last time. And perhaps we should stop our revelations right there.
The brilliance of Caché (for which this earlier Haneke film serves as a study) lies in the confluence of its details and human intentions. Georges and Majid do represent two strands of society, the affluent native (Auteuil, ironically enough, was actually born in Algiers) and struggling immigrant whose only viable chance of advancement resides in his children; Majid's son is a proud North African yet completely French; and the times when Georges could cross a Parisian street and not encounter an immigrant on the other side are long gone. As a survey of what has become of our globalized world the film remains insightful, correct and admonitory – yet this is all of secondary importance. Its true beauty is reflected in Georges's eyes, the portals to his soul and conscience, portals which his mother (Anne Girardot) knows have not always been the upholders of the ideals he now espouses. Is it a coincidence that, as every review will inform you, caché is French for "hidden"? Or that, in Arabic, Majid means "glorious" or "exalted"? Two highly controversial final scenes that will be discussed for years might suggest otherwise. But then again, only Georges can tell us for sure.