The good start to the new year continues, thanks to a couple of late arrivals from the old year, one of the benefits (to look at the glass as half full) of our cultural deprivation here in the provinces.
Caché, meaning "hidden," has cachet. Meaning quality, distinction, class. A well- chilled French thriller comparable in degrees centigrade to Time Out, With a Friend Like Harry, Merci pour le Chocolat, Red Lights, et al., it deals in anxiety rather than excitement. An anonymous videocassette in a plastic bag is left without explanation at the doorstep of the civilized host of a book-chat TV show: a two-hour static surveillance shot of the front of the house where he lives with his wife and their twelve-year-old son. A similar second tape, night-time, follows, accompanied by a childish drawing of a figure with blood streaming from the mouth. You can readily imagine, inasmuch as you are put snugly in the shoes of the protagonist, how this might give you the willies. An additional drawing, later, of a bloody chicken and additional surveillance tape of his boyhood home in the country, where now his mother alone resides, would seem to point the finger at an Algerian immigrant, a long-ago playmate of the protagonist, whom the latter's parents had once planned to adopt. There's a story there, a story hidden, a deep dark secret from the past, unknown even to the wife. The measured disclosure of it is as much a test of patience as a test of nerve.
The austere Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke lowers the temperature a few degrees nearer the deep freeze, even, than the French ideal. He gets unostentatious fine performances from Daniel Auteuil and a thicker-in-the-middle Juliette Binoche, and it's always good to see the venerable Annie Girardot (the mother in the country), whom we've likely not seen since Haneke's The Piano Teacher. He avails himself of no mood-setting background music, staying alert to ambient sound only, maintaining the stillness of a stalker, a voyeur. His spookily empty images, not just the ones borrowed from the surveillance camera, possess something of the expectancy, the pregnancy, of the early-20th-century photographs of Eugène Atget. And the unsettling final shot, outside the school of the twelve-year-old, is a stimulating discussion-starter for viewers whose curiosity rises above "Huh?" (Answer this: whose point of view?) The Arab angle, understandably sharpened by the spectacle last year of Paris burning, has been a bit overplayed by critics as a commentary on the legacy of French colonialism. My own feeling is that that's a heavy load to lay on the conscience of a six-year-old child (the age of the character at the pertinent time), and that the deep dark secret is little more than a serviceable plot device to set in motion the wheels of revenge. But no doubt it's serviceable, too, as ballast for those filmgoers who have a need to add Social Significance to a creepy thriller. For others, the Hitchcockian theme of shaken complacency, the Highsmithian theme of irreversible consequence, will be ballast enough.
Mrs. Henderson Presents, set in the London of entre les guerres and a little ways into the Second World guerre, paints the portrait of a Plucky Old Lady, a screen species that tends more often than not to be British, a subspecies that nowadays tends to be Judi Dench. She -- Dame Judi -- plays here, very playfully indeed, a well-bred widow from real life, who, with time and money on her hands, purchases and refurbishes the derelict Windmill Theatre in the West End, and, with the head-butting collaboration of a Jewish impresario (Bob Hoskins, in fine fettle), institutes the "radical idea" of nonstop music-hall performances: Revuedeville. When her competition catches up with that idea, she advances another step ahead, a step in the direction of Paris, a step toward their Moulin Rouge namesake: "Why don't we get rid of the clothes? Let's have naked girls!" But the only way around the censorial Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest, probably having more fun than his character ought to be having) is to compromise on a rule of no movement: so-called tableaux vivants, to preserve an air of Frenchness. The results, copiously illustrated, are chastely, charmingly, nostalgically, elegantly erotic, and the fastidious period reproduction extends even to the shapes and sizes of the boobs. (It extends as well to the moral code: the unmarried girl who gets herself pregnant promptly gets herself killed.) All in all, a well-crafted film from the erratic Stephen Frears, a film that fully accomplishes its aims, modest though those may be.
Anyone on the lookout for a lesbian Brokeback Mountain will have to look past Imagine Me and You, the writing and directing debut of Ol Parker, a lightweight love-at-first-sight romantic comedy about the instantaneous connection between a bride midway up the aisle and the nuptial flower arranger. Piper Perabo and Lena Headey are as attractive in their way as Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, though without the hats or horses or equivalents; and Matthew Goode as the bridegroom, concurrently the brother of Emily Mortimer and brother-in-law of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Woody Allen's Match Point, doesn't make things easy on them by virtue of being a decent chap. But then in the end he does make things easy on them by virtue of being a whatever-makes-you-happy chap. The dismal predictability includes the traditional race-to-the-airport climax.
Festival season opens tonight, although not, as I have come to expect, with the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, the sixteenth annual edition of which will run from February 9 through 19 at various venues, the AMC La Jolla, the Ultrastar Mission Valley and Poway, the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. For that, the full schedule can be obtained at www.lfjcc.org. Before that, however, the fledgling Noir Film Festival gets things going February 2 through 5 at the Pacific Gaslamp. This festival is not so self-explanatory. It seems necessary to say that it is not a film noir festival. It is rather a festival of black cinema, African-American cinema, in all its forms, action, animation, documentary, shorts, what-have-you. For details, go to www.noirfilmfestival.com. Down the road awaits the San Diego Latino Film Festival, March 9 through 19 at Ultrastar Mission Valley. I'll remind you when we get near enough to feel the vibration.