January, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Michael Haneke

Starring:Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, and Maurice Bénichou

No one likes to be sucker punched, unless of course, it happens in the movies. German screenwriter/director Michael Haneke, (responsible for French actress Isabelle Huppert's stunning roles in the disturbing Time of the Wolf and The Piano Teacher) does it time and again in this unnerving examination of an upper class Parisian couple being stalked by an unseen assailant. Dazzlingly shot and beautifully acted by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, this study in paranoia and deception sucks its audience into a nightmare made plausible by its clever use of technologies now so ubiquitous as to almost go unnoticed. But not anymore…

Auteuil plays Georges, an affluent and self-absorbed French intellectual who hosts a Charlie Rose/PBS-style television series featuring contemporary authors. Married to Anne, (Binoche) and the father of a 12 year-old son, Georges awakens one morning to find a videotape full of images obviously taken at his front door. That's soon followed by still another, this time accompanied by a disturbingly illustrated note. Then variations are delivered to his son and employer. Ostensibly ignorant about their source, Georges withers under Anne's demands for an explanation but nevertheless refuses to give one. The intrusions continue, growing ever more intimate and drawing Georges and Anne ever more deeply into the stalker's manipulations, which hint at the need for retribution from something buried in Georges' past. When the puzzle's finally solved, it's accompanied by terrifying violence and an admission that provides neither justification nor resolution. The wages of sin may be death, but not always of those who most deserve it; confession may be good for the soul, but what if it's not accompanied by remorse?

The director takes perverse glee in pulling the audience's chain here, sliding so effortlessly from the action to the videotapes and back again that he makes voyeurs of everyone in the theater. Like a skilled prizefighter, he feints in one direction then delivers the next thrust from still another, keeping the viewer off balance as the onion- skins of Georges' past are flayed off one by one. This chilling tale of self-deception and its accompanying justification represent the polar opposite of the recent "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"; it would be interesting to see them as bookends; contrasting  contemporary notions of guilt and redemption.

Auteuil, veteran of over 75 films in the past 40 years, is simply outstanding as the self-absorbed Georges, quick to take umbrage where no insult is intended and capable of dizzying levels of self-justification. As his fear of exposure increases and his whining grows more shrill, Binoche's willingness to paper over the strain in their marriage collapses, exposing a relationship built more on convenience and outward appearance than loving commitment. These two are together because it suits their respective interests, not because of spousal affection. Not since the domestic scouring of marriage found in the late films of Ingmar Bergman has a director laid out just how barren an outwardly appealing marital relationship can be.

The Verdict? Lean as a whippet and crafty as Satan; this one's a real stunner.



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