I'm going to talk stream-of-consciousness about a couple of great movies and give away some details about their plots, probably.
A couple years ago, I saw Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a film about a pair of killers who trap a family in their vacation home and toy with them.
The film is less about this nominal plot than it is about film violence in general - the complicity of an audience watching, and enjoying, cinematic violence. Often you watch film violence or sadism with the expectation that eventually advantages will shift and the villains of the film will suffer at the hands of their victims. This reversal absolves you, the viewer, of guilty pleasure you may have experienced while watching the initial orgy of violence.
(For recent examples of this sort of thing, Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes are pretty textbook. These films show you that it's all right to enjoy limb-hacking revenge.)
Haneke's Funny Games gets worse and worse, and you're waiting and waiting for the family to outwit their tormenters so you can feel okay about watching.
Then they seem to - for just a second. And what Haneke does after that distinguishes Funny Games from any horror movie I've ever seen. It turns the violence against the audience - it tells you that you will not be allowed to feel all right about anticipating violence, and it reveals the uncomfortable meaning of a moment early in the film when one of the killers (who at the time seems to be no more than a friendly neighbor) turns slyly toward the camera and, quickly but unmistakably, winks.
I'm thinking about Funny Games because I just saw Haneke's latest movie, Cache. The best movie I've seen in a very long time. It won at Cannes last year but I hadn't had a chance to see it in theaters. Too bad, because it is awesome - less shocking but more complex and intelligent than Funny Games.
On the surface it is a much more sedate and domestic film. There is no torture and very little violence, but a slow, terrible sense of menace builds throughout. All the images have a minatory stillness.
A wealthy man named Georges lives with his wife in a nice house in France. One day they begin receiving ominous videotapes of their house. (I know what you're thinking - Lost Highway. But no, this is a much smarter, better film.) Eventually the videos show other things, too - a mysterious apartment building, shots of the country house where Georges grew up. Drawings appear - a child spitting up blood, a bird without a head. Georges begins to suspect a culprit.
Clearly the videos and drawings have something to do with an incident from his childhood, an incident which reflects what Haneke regards as France's provincial racism toward its Algerian immigrant population. Georges' unwillingness to recall the incident seems to mirror France's desire to forget the drowning of 200 Algerians in the 1960s during a demonstration.
And yet... the person who Georges believes to be the stalker apparently isn't... and as the film goes on, Haneke seems less and less interested in revealing the culprit... and finally (I'm giving something away here) the film ends with no clear answer as to who's been recording and sending the tapes.
It's as if they came from no one, as if history is generating a record of itself.
Here is the most subtle, remarkable thing: the shots from the videos that appear on Georges' doorstep are indistinguishable in quality from filmic shots from Cache itself.
So you'll be watching a establishing shot of Georges' house, say, or a POV shot of someone walking down a hallway, something that seems to be "part of the movie" and suddenly the image will pause or begin to rewind. Or Georges will receive a tape which shows an image that you've already seen as part of the film proper - as if the characters are able to watch scenes that took place earlier in the film in which they exist. The horror of being observed, of everything being known. On the videotapes, the camera often seems to be located where its subjects should have been able to see it. No one ever sees.
Most chilling are the final shots of the film. The two most important of these are static, just like the videos. One shows (subtly, in the corner of an image that is compositionally designed to pull your eye away from the crucial information) two characters who should not know each other, and whose acquaintance can only be a consequence of Georges' denial of what happened when he was a boy.
The other, preceding shot, shows what happened in Georges' childhood (a child being literally dragged out of a promising life and into a different, hopeless one) and it also tells you something else: someone or something was watching even then.