Michael Haneke’s latest shot across the bow of the bourgeoisie is a suspenseful yarn about a middle-aged French couple who find themselves under surveillance by person or persons unknown — videotapes start showing up at their doorstep, some of them accompanied by crude, vaguely threatening drawings that seem to make all too much sense to the husband who quickly attempts to take matters into his own hands.

This sounds like the kind of thing that would have delighted Hitchcock, and Haneke’s execution crosses one of Hitch’s riveting narratives with the forbidding clinicism of Kubrick. The result is almost spectacular in its pure showmanship and simultaneously devastating in its formal control.

Caché works on several levels. On the one hand, it’s a straightforward if frustratingly elliptical mystery story about a family man trying to discover the identity of a stalker. (I can imagine it being remade to intriguing effect by someone as nutty as Mel Gibson.) On the other, it’s a psychological drama about guilt — the way regret opens cracks in a man’s soul and can turn him into a sort of monster. In some respect, it’s a political allegory about racism and classism in recent French history. And in another, it’s a film theorist’s essay on the nature of conscience, which wills itself into being here in the form of the unblinking eye of a camera operated by nobody in particular — or, if you feel like getting all Bergman on Haneke’s ass, perhaps by God himself.

The first thing a careful viewer may notice about Caché is that Haneke seems fascinated by the potential of the more malleable video image to at first masquerade as a filmed image. The opening shot is of a residential street somewhere in Paris upon which all the film’s titles are superimposed. After this static image has been on screen for a few minutes, somebody is seen exiting the house and heading up the street toward the camera. And then we hear an incongruous voiceover. The image freezes and stutters backward, the tracking lines of a videotape in scan mode suddenly in evidence on screen, and the on-screen image suddenly revealed as the contents of the first videotape left for the Laurents to puzzle over.

Because the whole film is shot with a high-definition camcorder, there’s no easy way to discern to discern whether any given shot is an image from the film’s narrative or simply a new videotape being introduced in the story — the in-film videotapes and the film itself are shot on the same media and are thus indistinguishable. The blurring of that line starts to seem significant later when frustrated viewers have to consider the question of whether the central mystery of Caché is a whodunit without the who — whether there’s a human perpetrator behind the string of videotapes, or whether the whole question of “who” is even relevant.

Certainly Haneke seems to look sideways at this couple, Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche). The walls of their apartment are covered with shelves packed with books and videos that resemble so much chattering-class wallpaper — an interior decoration strategy that’s reflected on the set of Georges’ public-television talk show, where shelves upon shelves full of clearly phony tomes are the set dressing. Notably, their bedroom, where Georges strips naked at film’s end to slip between sheets where he will endure the ineluctable nightmares he deserves, has all the warmth and charm of a mausoleum. It makes sense that Haneke would make this couple’s nightmares his own business.

In fact, Caché’s approach amounts to some kind of methodical psychological torture of characters that simultaneously inhabit and seem trapped in his screw-turning narrative. In a horribly misguided attempt to exorcise his demons, Georges is eventually reduced to facing down his old friend Majid, now a broken man who is clearly befuddled at his presence, and making thuggish, thick-headed threats of physical violence. (Is it a tendency of French men or simply of men in French movies to be driven, in moments of emotional duress, to stubbornly pursue a particular line of inquiry despite apparent evidence to the contrary?) One observer eventually notes that, watching Georges twist and sputter in the wind, he’s learned what a guilty conscience looks like. It’s a line that delivers with it some degree of satisfaction, because it’s the moment of Georges’ very traditional comeuppance. And part of Caché’s unsettling power is the feeling that, like an enthusiastic biology student, Haneke is taking grim, righteous pleasure in the unsparing vivisection he performs on screen.

And he actively encourages the audience to become an accessory to Georges’ paranoia. It’s hard to tell, at any moment, whether what you’re looking at is about to be revealed as another videotaped image — the enigmatic, miniature narrative within the film’s larger narrative. With a sense of unease thus instilled, Haneke springs several traps over the course of the film that set the curious mind reeling. What was that insert? Where the hell did the kid with the bloody face come film? Is she sleeping with him? What’s with the story about the dog? And what about that poor chicken? Finally, there’s something happening in the very last shot of the film that has been variously interpreted as a gloomy resolution to this mystery, or as a hopeful sign for reconciliation — with this kind of calculated ambiguity, Haneke’s challenge to his audience is direct and personal.

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