Serious Film: Cavell, Automatism and Michael Haneke’s Caché

Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film can be regarded as the first broad philosophical examination of cinema, indeed the first philosophy of film that attempts to account for its specific ontology, its role both as a form of art and a form of entertainment and, I want to argue here, as a mode of thinking. While Cavell’s abiding interest in film has predominantly focused on what he calls ‘traditional movies’ and their capacity to engage in the kind of reflection he defines as the philosophy of the everyday, the problematic of The World Viewed presents the ‘cinematic thinker’ with a compelling delineation of the relationship between film and modernism, one that begs the question not just of the kind of thinking undertaken by traditional movies, but how that thinking is to be distinguished from modernist reflection. The argument for film as a mode of philosophical reflection is developed in tandem with a conception of modernist art: on Cavell’s view, modernist art is philosophical because it is self-conscious. In becoming self-conscious, art, Cavell writes, comes to exist in the condition of philosophy (TWV, 14). Self-consciousness, or the burden of being serious, requires art to reflect on its capacity to make meaning. Importantly, modernist art does this by taking into consideration the physical bases of the medium, its technical means, its conventional powers to spiritualise matter and, arguably, that which constitutes the essence of art itself.[1] Throughout The World Viewed, Cavell uses the term serious to refer to modernist art, the modernist novel and modernist film. For Cavell, it is not a question of modernist film being able to think and traditional film having no capacity to think but of modernist film necessarily being engaged in self-reflective thinking and traditional film having the opportunity to think differently. This means that not all cinematic thinking is philosophical in the way that modernist art is philosophical. Indeed, it means that cinematic thinking should not be conflated with film in the mode of philosophising. My task here is to unpack the means by which Cavell’s work can be used to distinguish between cinematic thinking and film in the mode of philosophising before examining the kind of thinking Michael Haneke undertakes in Caché (2005).

Cavell’s distinction between traditional and modernist film is initially posed in a series of questions about why most film is not modernist, how it is that film avoided modernism for so long and what film gains from having avoided modernism. In his opening chapter, for example, Cavell warns us to distrust the assertion that film is naturally a modern art or the art to which modern man naturally responds. He argues in the first instance that there is nothing natural about modern man, that naturalness does not come naturally to him but is something to be achieved (TWV, 14), and secondly that film avoided the fate of modern art by maintaining “its continuities of audiences and genres” (TWV, 14-15). Unlike modern art, film can “be taken seriously without assuming the burden of seriousness” (TWV, 14-15). If we accept these facts and still call film “the modern art”, says Cavell, then our conception of modernity is fatuous: either modernity is being understood simply in terms of modernization (technological progress) or film is being deemed to be modern solely on the basis of the epoch in which it exists.

If film is an art, Cavell says, it is “a traditional art” and as such “takes its tradition for granted”(TWV, 15).

The movie’s ease within its assumptions and achievements – its conventions remaining convenient without self-questioning – is central to its pleasure for us. We shall sometimes think of this as film’s naïveté, but that is perhaps a naïve way of looking at the matter. It does not, in any case, explain film’s absorption in its conventions, but simply redescribes it. (TWV, 15)

Traditional film, for Cavell, is a mythical and magical form that captivates and enthrals its audience. Its popularity is attested to in the fact that both its most sophisticated and most ordinary examples can be appreciated by the same audience (TWV, 5), which Cavell calls its “necessary region of indiscriminateness” (TWV, 6). The condition of modernist art by contrast does not cultivate the broad appreciation that film does and will not tolerate a lack of appreciation of its serious instances. It leaves no room for minor artists because “the work of the major artist condemns the work of others to artistic nonexistence, and [participates in a situation] in which his own work is condemned to seriousness, to further radical success or complete failure” (TWV, 13). For modernist art, the question of the nature of art and the nature of the importance of art are so grave that they don’t even want to share their concerns with those who are unconcerned with them (TWV, 4, 14). While Cavell conceives his relation to traditional/mythical/magical cinema to be natural – that is, non-reflective, not philosophical – he recalls and tries to account for a growing restlessness in this relation which he can’t precisely pin down but which he associates with the rise of the European new wave (Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, Godard, Resnais, Truffaut et al) and the decline of Hollywood (TWV, xix).

The World Viewed attempts to account for this growing restlessness, and by implication, for modernist film. The concept of automatism is central to the argument Cavell puts forward – traditional and modernist film each have a different relation to automatism – and can be used to distinguish more precisely the cinematic thinking implied in traditional and modernist cinema. Cavell develops the parameters of automatism at four distinct moments in The World Viewed, calling upon it each time to nuance something intrinsic to cinema’s relation to the world, to us, and to itself, and to tell us something about the different ways in which cinema thinks. In contrast to other reflections on automatism that emphasise cinema’s status as an art in which human intelligence is subjected to the intelligence of the machine, Cavell’s developing meditation on it, while not explicitly evaluative, can nevertheless be regarded as redemptive. Cavell neither celebrates nor laments the mechanical qualities of cinema, but we will see that the trajectory of his argument is toward a respiritualisation of cinema’s mechanical basis.

Cavell takes the concept of automatism from André Bazin’s famous essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. In the first instance, film’s automatism is understood as something specific to the medium of photography. Automatism refers to the fact that the photographic image provides a manufactured rather than hand-made picture of the world (TWV, 20).[2] In reactivating the concept, Cavell both questions Bazin’s deployment of the term to build his argument about cinematic realism and emphasises Bazin’s observation that the distinctive power of the photographic apparatus is that it unburdens the human subject of the task of apprehending nature to assure itself of its meaning (TWV, 20). Cavell says “[t]his is not a wish for power over creation … but a wish not to need power, not to have to bear its burdens” (TWV, 40). For Bazin, cinema is uniquely equipped to lay bare the realities of reality, which for him is a kind of aesthetic realism, but this aesthetic or spiritual possibility of cinema is always threatened by the photographic apparatus’s capacity to deliver a merely perceptual reality that satisfies a psychological need for illusion. While there has been much debate over the years about the precise nature of the realism that Bazin is championing, and Cavell himself wants to place the emphasis on aesthetic realism rather than perceptual realism, it is arguable, as I have proposed elsewhere, that Cavell’s disagreement with Bazinian realism is not based on a careful reading of Bazin’s work and the two thinkers in fact share more in common than Cavell seems to think.[3]

The parameters of photographic automatism go beyond the idea of a mere ‘mechanical production of an image of reality’ as it is most commonly understood. The first automatism of the movies refers also to the fact that they are magical reproductions of an “unseen world” (TWV, 40) and that the mechanism of automatism disables our presence to reality (TWV, 25). Cinema thus naturalises and neutralises the fundamental displacement of our presence to nature:

it is as though the world’s projection explains our forms of unknowing and our inability to know. The explanation is not so much that the world is passing us by, as that we are displaced from our natural habitation within it, placed at a distance from it. The screen overcomes our fixed distance; it makes displacement appear as our natural condition. (TWV, 40-41)

For Cavell, the invisibility of our gaze or our invisibility to the scene at which we look – that is to say, the voyeuristic nature of cinema – also taps into the specifically modern desire for privacy and anonymity (TWV, 40).

On his second mention of automatism, the conceptual parameters of the term remain unchanged – automatism still refers to the mechanical apprehension of nature – but Cavell’s emphasis is slightly different: it is no longer the subject relieved of the burden of apprehending nature that concerns him but the reality of the projected world. Cavell in this respect writes that the medium of film, meaning its photographic automatism, “makes possible the meaningful use of human reality and of nature as such” (TWV, 68). Automatism is the mechanism that gives us views of the world. The material basis of the medium of film comprises “a succession of automatic world projections” (TWV, 73).[4] The candour of film, according to Cavell, derives from the world exhibiting itself and from film revealing what is revealed to it in its entirety (TWV, 120).

This means that Cavell, even at this early stage of his argument, understands automatism in cinema as two distinct things – as if cinema, if you like, has two ‘mediums’ at its disposal. The first is the photographic medium where the celluloid emulsion captures views of the world, but the second is the world that gives itself to be viewed, as Cavell says “not reality as such, but projections of reality” (TWV, 166).[5] So both the automaticity of the apparatus and the becoming of the world comprise the necessary and essential conditions of cinema. Notwithstanding Cavell’s lengthy contemplation of how this condition is impacted by animation (and today we would have to add digital cinema) in ‘More of the World Viewed’, the afterword of the second edition of his book, automatism is conceived by Cavell as the fundamental condition that underpins our viewing of film. It makes film an art that concerns itself with the intentionality of the world as much as the intentionality of the artist, an art that is closer to the truth of nature than the other arts, and, by virtue of this, brings us closer to nature than the other arts. Striving for a closeness to nature is precisely what Cavell conceives as the purpose of art in modernity. On Cavell’s view, modern art’s attentiveness to the world reflects not so much a reflective desire for an assurance of nature’s reality (which he equates with realism), but an assurance of the co-presence of humankind and nature, of each being present to the other.

Cavell’s contemplation of the automaticity of photography and cinema leads him to contemplate the automaticities of the other arts. Automatism, on Cavell’s third consideration of it, becomes the same thing as the medium, not just film’s medium, but the medium as such. All arts for Cavell have their automatisms – poetry, for example, has the words of language, the letters of the alphabet, the sounds of their pronunciation. These automatisms comprise the physical, technical, formal and conventional aspects of the medium that function as both the means to and limits of intentional interventions. Cavell thus postulates: “The use of the word [automatism] seems to me right for both the broad genres or forms in which an art organizes itself (e.g., the fugue, the dance forms, blues) and those local events or topoi around which a genre precipitates itself (e.g., modulations, inversions, cadences)”, (TWV, 104). Contemplating the automatisms of the arts in general spurs Cavell on to the view that the automatisms of film are by no means restricted to those which issue from the mechanical nature of its apparatuses. All the other physical, technical, formal and conventional elements of cinema, including the physicality of the world itself, and the purpose of cinema’s art, can thus be considered among film’s automatisms. In respect of this, we can distinguish between cinema’s primary automatism, which derives from its photographic nature and encapsulates Cavell’s first two meditations on automatism, and film’s secondary automatisms, which while ontically distinct are ontologically the same as the automatism of other arts.

By understanding automatism as a general condition of all art, Cavell distinguishes much more emphatically between traditional and modern art than we have thus far seen. Indeed, what distinguishes traditional art from modernist art is based on a work’s relation to its automatisms. Traditional art understands its automatisms no less than modernist art does, but it simply makes use of them. Modernist art, by contrast, takes them not simply as means to ends but understands them as its means of freedom and constraint and reflects on them as such. This distinction between traditional and modernist art holds for the distinction between traditional and modernist film.

Although Cavell doesn’t specify the distinction between traditional and modernist film in terms of thinking, on this logic, when traditional film tells stories by giving us views of the world, it thinks in accordance with a causal ordering of events. Cinema’s first order of thought would be the causal reason that evidences itself in the movement of physical reality and the unfolding of events. In thinking by means of causal structures (whether profilmic or narrative), the world of traditional cinema’s stories appears natural. Profilmic thinking, we might surmise, would be like the kind of immanent, pantheistic thinking that the Stoics conceived on the basis of an identification between God, reason, causality and nature. While the materiality of film comprises both the projected human reality conditioned by physical causality, and a narrative ordering of events, film does not restrict itself to understanding the world’s becoming by such means.[6] Even in traditional cinema the matter of physical reality can be turned into signification to the extent that it is invested with meaning by the director. A distinction is nevertheless called for between the thinking of the world and the thinking of the film director who imposes on physical causalities the symbolic structure that speaks of the world, of what someone thinks of the world, of an acculturated, intentionalised world. Cinematic motifs and tropes are doubtless automatisms that belong to the art of narrative in general; they are the director/writer’s means of spiritualising matter. Cavell for his part pays no heed to cinema’s narrative mode, but he does acknowledge instead the film medium’s signifying possibilities in cutting, editing and shot scale and countless other formal components of film could be added to this list. He is unequivocal about these signifying possibilities comprising the aesthetic possibilities of the medium, and he observes such aesthetic possibilities are not givens but emerge only by thinking about them (TWV, 31). Contra to what Panofsky has to say about them, they are not applications, he insists, but creations of the medium. They are a way of giving significance, communicating something, or making sense (TWV, 32).

Finally, in Cavell’s fourth meditation on automatism, an artwork’s relation to its automatism and its capacity to make the world and humanity co-present to each other can be doubted. Modernist art arises in the wake of doubt about art’s traditional automatisms. Painting, for example, comes to doubt its production of likeness as a meaningful expression of a conviction about reality (TWV, 21). Such doubt, for Cavell, goes hand in hand with philosophical modernity. The modern striving for a unity with nature arises in the face of philosophical doubt about nature’s capacity to reveal the truth of itself and about the possibility of representing the unmediated presence of the self and the world to each other, a doubt in other words about the possibility of having a natural relation to the world. The capacity of art to be philosophical (or modern) is thus for Cavell historically determined – it is related to a crisis of belief, or a scepticism, that has afflicted the world since the sixteenth century when religious and eventually monarchical authority and the onto-theological metaphysics that supported them started to be challenged.[7]

If such doubt precipitates the overturning of tradition by the modern, it does not mean that the modernist artist disavows his embeddedness in tradition. Cavell says, “[t]he modernist is incomprehensible apart from his questioning of specific traditions, the traditions that have produced him” (TWV, 15). Modernism is not constituted on the point at which the traditional automatisms of a medium of art are exhausted so much as art reaching the point where it must reflect upon these powers. The artist devoted to art is “compelled to find [the] unheard-of structures” that have generated it historically (TWV, 72).[8] These structures are its automatisms and this means that modernist art is an investigation of automatism. Such investigation demonstrates the art’s self-consciousness (TWV, 108-118). Modernist art understands its automatisms as both freedoms and constraints to the extent that the primary automatism of modernist art is an exploration of the dialectic of freedom and constraint. Modernist art, in this respect, is nothing but an intentionalising of automatism.

Cavell provides a salient (if somewhat circumlocutionary) example of doubt in cinema’s traditional automatisms in Alfred Hitchcock’s modernist exploration of voyeurism as the physical basis of the medium or automatism his narratives address. It may seem a little odd to follow up an observance of cinema’s inherently voyeuristic nature with the example of Vertigo (1958) rather than Rear Window (1954), but Vertigo in fact undertakes a much more revealing exploration of the destructive and indeed psychotic implications of the totalizing fantasies that traditional cinema, including its satisfaction of the desire to see, entails. Scottie can be regarded as simultaneously an avatar for the film director who orchestrates reality according to his own liking and the voyeuristic spectator who confuses his absence from the reality he views with the idea that he can control the world in the same way that he can control his fantasy. Cavell is careful here not to deny the importance of fantasy as a means of engaging reality – fantasy, he argues, should not be conceived as being independent of reality but as a means of establishing a connection to reality – but this is not to say that its uses don’t bear the worry of psychotic eventualities (the delusional at one end of the spectrum who retreats from reality into fantasy and the obsessive compulsive, like Scottie, at the other, who has sealed himself off in “a scorching fantasy”, past the point, Cavell says, of “the imagination where happiness and truth coalesce” (TWV, 87).

In the absence of totalising fantasies, our mundane existence nevertheless repeatedly encounters the problem of a lack of conviction about our relation to reality. Lack of conviction becomes scepticism as we become aware of “our forms of unknownness and our inability to know” (TWV, 40-41) and subsequently of nature’s unwillingness to disclose itself to us. By the time of writing the afterword, Cavell states cinema’s relation to scepticism in extreme terms: by satisfying our senses of a reality that nevertheless does not exist, film “is a moving image of scepticism” (TWV, 188). It is not altogether clear, however, whether Cavell’s indication of the apparent ‘automatism’ of this scepticism – that is, scepticism manifesting itself in cinema independently of our consciousness of it – is intended to disturb us or put forward by him with the hope that the scepticism built into the medium will be acknowledged.

As commentators have noted, scepticism is understood by Cavell as a philosophically useful, even dialectical means of re-establishing our connection with reality. Sceptical doubt puts in process a movement toward acknowledgment – precisely the kind of acknowledgment that modernist art and modernist film undertakes with regard to its automatisms. If, for Cavell, modernist film must wrestle with uncertainty and particularly with the uncertainty of the automatisms that were once construed as its power, we must also question the sceptical disposition – let’s say the automatic scepticism – that cinema prescribes. In his recapitulation of his book’s argument at the beginning of Chapter 19 ‘The Acknowledgment of Silence’, Cavell asks what it is that movies have to acknowledge in order to be faithful to themselves as art: “what it is that would not exist (for it) unless admitted by it, what it is that the movie can no longer safely assume, but must declare, in order not to risk denying?”. And he answers by saying that it must acknowledge “its own limits: in this case, its outsideness to its world, and my absence from it. For these limits were always the conditions of its candor, of its fate to reveal all and only what is revealed to it, and of its fortune in letting the world exhibit itself” (TWV, 146-147).[9] Film’s most fundamental limiting conditions are understood as cinema’s exteriority to the world and my exteriority to it. This means that while cinema bears witness to the world exhibiting itself it can only reveal what the world shows of itself.

For Cavell, the modernist filmmaker, like the modernist artist, acknowledges the world’s separateness and lets it exhibit itself by considering the conditions of nature not as they effect me but in their indifference to me; that is, as autonomous, self-sufficient laws unto themselves (TWV, 113). By acknowledging the world’s haecceity the modernist return to nature understands that from nature’s perspective I am the superfluous one (TWV, 113). Similarly, if when the modernist camera demonstrates the world’s closedness to me, denies, that is, the world cohering around me that traditional cinema imagined for me in its mythological age, I acknowledge this closedness, I also stand the chance of securing an ethical place for myself in the picture. Cavell says that from this place, I stand to gain a real rather than illusory sense of the immortality of the nature that survives me and judges me afresh at every turn.


In Cavell’s ontology, traditional film accommodates the thinking of the world, of the imagination, understanding and even reason, but it is not reflexive. Only modernist art and modernist film are self-conscious and they are self-conscious by virtue of a changed relation to film’s automatism(s). For Cavell, reflexivity is the distinguishing characteristic of ‘serious film’. In the second half of this paper, I consider Cavell’s advancement of the idea of serious film by taking Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005) as one such example – that is, as a film that thinks by reflecting on the automatisms of cinema.

It is arguable that in its consummate handling of, and reflection upon, film’s traditional automatisms, Caché allows for both traditional and modernist modes of apprehension. Catherine Wheatley notes, for example, that Haneke uses the generic conventions of traditional cinema and its engagement of the scopophilic drive only to frustrate this drive by modernist technique.[10] Indeed, while Wheatley in her analysis of the film refers to Cavell’s philosophical ideas about moral perfectionism she finds his writing on film to be of limited application because his analyses are too oriented to film content and not interested enough in the spectator’s relation to images.[11] This may be the case with Cavell’s later writing, it clearly does not hold for The World Viewed and, in any case, Cavell’s elaboration of the ontology of film makes it entirely justifiable for him to do this. The reach of his discussion of film’s automatism does not permit the distinction between form and content that Wheatley implies.[12]

Taken as a mainstream film – or what Cavell calls a traditional movie – that avoids any doubt about the function of cinema’s traditional automatisms, the plot of Caché places it in the genre of the mystery film or whodunit. The film tells the story of a single child family who receive mysterious and seemingly inscrutable messages from an unknown source. The messages come in the form of images – videos that put the function of the panoptic gaze into operation and drawings that function mnemonically to trigger the shameful childhood memories of the central protagonist Georges (Daniel Auteuil). The audience, like Georges and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), want to know who the source of the images is and what their intention in sending them might be. As events unfold, the couple discuss the possibility of various sources (one of Georges’ television fans or one of their son Pierrot’s schoolmates) until it becomes apparent that Georges is dissembling about the significance of the images and that for him they are neither random nor empty of meaning but refer to specific events in his past that he has kept secret and would like to keep hidden. Like the audience, who wants to know the secret causality that lies behind what they are being given to see, Georges follows the clues that the images present until he encounters Majid, the Algerian orphan who his parents had wanted to adopt after his mother and father disappeared, presumed murdered, during the massacre of 200 Algerians in Paris in 1961 (known as the Paris Massacre). On meeting Majid again, Georges makes no attempt to reconcile with him, gives no credence to his protestations of innocence in sending the tapes and drawings, and instead accuses him of terrorising his family. When other aspects of Georges’ life start to run amok – specifically when his son Pierrot fails to return home from school one evening – he precipitously concludes that Majid is responsible and has Majid and his son apprehended and interrogated by the police. Majid’s subsequent violent suicide in Georges’ presence redirects the question of who has been terrorised, but it doesn’t clarify who the instigator of the larger scenario is, although Georges decides for himself that Majid’s son must be responsible. The film ends with a long take, framed identically to an earlier shot of the stairs outside Pierrot’s school. As the children disperse from the building and gather momentarily with their friends in conversation before going their separate ways, a meeting between Majid’s son and Pierrot implies that the two boys may have been in it together.

Beyond its ostensible subject matter, Caché is a film preoccupied with the power of vision, of what we cannot see and what it means to be seen. By reflecting on cinema’s traditional automatisms, Caché directly intersects with Cavell’s interest in presence, in cinema projecting reality, and in the modernist’s commitment to showing nature’s indifference to me, to making it clear that I am the superfluous one. The film, as its title indicates, is also about the world withdrawing itself from view and the moral and ethical dilemmas that become evident in the light of an acknowledgement of this withdrawal, raising questions about seeing from the outside and of being seen by something or someone on the outside, from a point of view that is simultaneously ungraspable and fugitive, and that draws power from this elusiveness.

Caché’s interest in cinema’s primary automatism is apparent in the ontological status of the first message sent to the Laurent family. Footage of the exterior of the Laurent home, shot in the daytime from an adjoining street, comprises the opening shot of the film.[13] Taken with a static camera, the shot is of the ilk you would expect to find on Google Earth but for its extended duration and the camera angle training our look too precisely on the Laurent house. Like the shots of our homes on Google Earth, the image is indifferent to what it sees. Nothing of interest happens. A man walks down the street, time passes, the door to the house opens, a woman exits, walks in the same direction as the man and disappears behind the façade of the building on the left of the screen. More time passes. A man on a bike appears from behind the left façade and just as quickly exits by the right hand corner of the frame, travelling, we surmise, right past the place where the camera must have been. The man on the bike pays it no heed, which is not surprising because the camera is conventionally outside (or invisible to) the reality of the fiction film’s diegesis.

The extended duration of the shot absorbs us into the banal occurrences of image and activates our forensic imagination. We notice that the ambient noise that is predominantly synchronous with the image – the sounds of the city, the airy buzz of the outdoors, the rumble of distant traffic, birds twittering, the footsteps of the man who walks down the street, the door opening and closing as the woman leaves the house – is disturbed by other inexplicable, seemingly non-synchronic sounds. These are the hollow reverberations of the movement of people in an inside space and of interior doors opening and closing. And then a man’s voice, “Allons?” and a woman’s response, “Rien” seem to come from our side of the screen. The conversation continues as a car passes by the house: the man asks where it was; the woman answers, in a plastic bag on the porch. We hear footsteps as a woman enters the bottom the frame, and another enters from the right; both head to left. The woman’s voice again “Qu’est ce qu’il y a?”. Then thumping feet that clearly come from our side of the screen.

The next shot of the film establishes that Haneke’s interest lies in the camera in its function of surveillance vis-à-vis the couple’s experience of the panoptic gaze. The camera is still outside the house, but now occupies a position on its street and the brightness of the morning has given way to dusk. A man, who we recognise as Daniel Auteuil, comes through the door, followed by Juliette Binoche. The camera tracks with Auteuil as he strides across the road to confront the position from which the (other) camera had been watching, looking for something that is not giving itself to be seen. These opening shots reflect on the instrumental and institutional assignment of visual perception to the architectural dispositif devised by Jeremy Bentham to instil a sense of powerlessness and objectification into the person who is seen by subjecting him to a gaze that requires no sensory support in order to function. They also beg the question of what it means that we, the audience, have been inserted as a proxy into this apparatus. Have we unwittingly succumbed to the position of gaoler? Is this what the democratisation of vision and the freedom of aesthetic judgment entails? Or is it the case that the audience’s implication in the distribution of this gaze makes us the voyeurs, the guilty ones?

In the third shot (which appears to be a continuation of the opening shot) blurry horizontal lines cut into the image, making sense of the previous sonic confusion by transforming the status of the image from movie to video and from an image that is seen from one side of the screen to an image that is seen from both. This transformation of the story’s support requires our acknowledgement of having hitherto been deceived. More importantly, it means that hereafter we do not know the position from which we see, nor from what conditions the fact that we see derives. We are no longer assured of the fictional world that absorbs our cognitive capacities because of a suspicion, impossible to dispel, that the continuum of the present, the linear unfolding of time, has been withdrawn from what it is we are being given to see. Our space on this side of the screen has been occupied by those who should be on the other side and time has doubled back on itself, so that the present unfolding of the film is an already past that is playing itself over, not as a flashback but as time unmoored and out of joint.[14]

The camera whose function is conventionally restricted to the production of cinematic narratives from a position on the outside has entered into the daily lives of the characters inside the film. This insertion is not as simple as moving something from the outside to the inside, as when Renoir plays Octave in La regle du jeu in order to think about what kind of film director he is or when Hitchcock makes a cameo appearance in one of his films to remind us that he is the orchestrator of the drama.[15]   We are not bearing witness to the infinite regress or mise-en-abyme created by the artist who wants to include a visible representation of himself in the image of reality he is rendering, but something much more encumbered and difficult to comprehend. It is neither the director nor the camera that becomes part of the mise-en-scène but rather the function of the camera, let’s say the gaze as such. The result is a Borromean knot in which all the conditions that attach to our presumptions about the world exhibiting itself – of perspectivally dependent hierarchies of knowledge, of voyeurism and visibility, seeing and being seen, vision and gaze – have become entangled. The effect of the insertion of the camera into the diegesis means that the mise-en-scène that filmmakers conventionally (or traditionally) rely on to make narratives that are seen from the outside is ruptured by a pocket or invagination. This excess cannot be contained by being absorbed into tropes and motifs and is greater than the conventional surplus meaning of the photographic image that arises because the camera captures an unseen world. It functions instead as an exorbitance that unfurls our relation to the image and forces us into a kind of vertigo.

In providing a multiplicity of perspectives, the film traps us in a kind of cubist relativism, making it impossible to find the linear path of the classic whodunit. We are in the realm rather of moebius strips projected into three-dimensional spaces, of Kleinian bottles and Alice Universes (of topologies where positive and negative charges are indistinguishable, where local significations are subjected to inversion when viewed from a global perspective and where distinct points are connected by multiple topologically distinct routes). This is not in other words a straightforward case of orthographic projection.

Our induction into this uncanny world of mixed-up spatio-temporal coordinates instils uncertainty at three levels. Ontologically, we don’t know at any point whether we are watching the film Caché or one of the videos that are part of the mise-en-scène. Phenomenologically, we don’t know whether what we are seeing is happening in the present tense of the diegetic world or is part of its past. Psychologically, we don’t know with whom our allegiance lies: Georges or the out-of-field hidden protagonist or the director. Indeed, the film establishes powerful identifications between the audience and all three of them: the victim of surveillance, the perpetrator of the deeds and the orchestrator of the scenario. And because the film identifies the different perspectives of these ‘characters’ with each other, it privileges none of them.

The story that simultaneously unfolds and folds in on itself is dramatised by the interplay of different kinds of images: not just surveillance images but also iconic drawings, media images, of which the shot of Georges at work in front of shelves of untitled (spineless) books is emblematic, film images, television images, memory images and dream images. The function of images is a second automatism that the film reflects on, and Haneke’s interest here is in their propensity to take on a life of their own by connecting with other images. This is the secret life of images, or their effect on the inside.

The second video received by Georges and Anne comes wrapped in a crayon and gouache picture rendered on heavy gauge sketchbook paper. This naïve depiction, its palette limited to black and red, diagrammatic or comic-strip like in its purely iconic representation of a child’s head with squiggles of black hair and blood gushing from its mouth, is the first in a series of four drawings sent from that empty centre around which the drama of the film turns. These non-indifferent images are provocations that play to Georges’ imaginary and activate the drive in him, confronting him and pulling him back into memories of his less than innocent childhood about which he cannot talk, even with his wife and mother. His incapacity to deal rationally with these images places strain on his marriage and raises questions about the couple’s capacity for intimacy. Anne is clearly morally repelled by his actions in the past and by his attempts to justify them in the present by protesting the innocence of childhood. The images also impact on his son Pierrot who receives a postcard of one of the drawings sent to him at school and who interprets his mother’s growing estrangement from his father and closeness to a family friend as signs of infidelity. The film’s attention to the destructive implications of the intrusion of images indicates an interest in speaking at a much more philosophical level about function of visuality in the organisation of the stakes of the publicity and propriety of images.

The relay of the look is one of cinema’s traditional automatisms and Caché puts a wealth of looks into operation in order to build its scenario. We look at a film whose camera looks at video footage. The video looks at Georges’ family’s house as Georges looks at the video. The camera looks at Georges but also penetrates into the deepest recesses of his mind, just as Georges looks into himself. Haneke makes a ‘gift’ of Georges’ look to the audience, affording us an intimacy with him that he does not have with his wife. Georges also looks at Majid, who had already been looking at him, but only on television, and so on.

The circulation of looks, however, is not just a means to an end. Haneke also puts this traditional automatism of cinema into question, demonstrating for example that looking is not the same thing as being able to see. This point is deftly made when Georges’ wily mother’s eyes slowly glaze over as it dawns on her that her son is dissimulating, that his inane prattle about his uneventful existence is incommensurate with the nature of his questioning. And when Majid requests to see Georges and then slits his own throat in his presence, Georges refuses to bear witness to the consequences of his selfish actions as a child, and, like the French government’s response to this day to the Paris Massacre, resists being held to account. Haneke thus demonstrates a disconnection between the apprehension of the world by the senses and the willingness to be moved by it, or to comprehend its meaning, that cinema takes as given. The difference between apprehension and comprehension in this instance speaks to the automatism of the mechanical eye of the camera that observes in its entirety the world that gives itself to be seen but bears no responsibility for its meaning.

The film’s narrative also invokes unseen looks between Majid and his son and Majid’s son and Pierrot, which testify in turn to the important role of the out-of-field in the establishment of on-screen space. Libby Saxton has recalled in this respect Deleuze’s point that the out-of-field brings into play a disturbing and insistent presence (one he says that does not exist, but subsists or insists) and thereby introduces a spiritual dimension into cinema.[16]


For all his advocacy of modernism and his attempts to wrestle with the conditions under which cinema might find the courage of conviction, Cavell finishes the 1971 edition of his book with a suggestion that acknowledges the limits of the reflexivity mooted in the name of modernism and, indeed, as the condition in which art and film enter into the condition of philosophy. As well as arguing for the importance and the danger of film in its presentation of a world that is complete without me, that holds me, as it were, on the outside of the picture (TWV, 160), Cavell conceives a possible space for me in the picture by reconciling the condition of viewing film with being thrown into the world as Heidegger understood it. In repeating what is at stake in our first traumatic entry into the world, film, for Cavell, has the power to awaken us from the slumber of natural existence. If this awakening entails a kind of self-consciousness, it is not for all that a matter of ‘seeing myself seeing myself’ as the reflexive relation is conventionally understood. The road to self-knowledge, Cavell imagines even in 1971 is an ugly one. Our desire for the world’s exhibition, he says can only be satisfied if we let it appear, and this will only happen if we are willing to let go of our actions and allow the self to exhibit the self without the self’s intervention. The condition in which this happens is anxiety because the terror that attaches to it entails a ‘revelation of the self through a betrayal of the self’, just as love for Cavell is always a betrayal of love. What is interesting about Cavell’s candour and conviction here is his acknowledgment that acting intentionally or with self-consciousness is not a means of mastery but a form of openness. Cavell, in other words, ends his book by imagining what an ethical cinema might be.

In the final section of this essay, I want to attend to the ethical dimension of Cavell’s thinking about automatism and of Haneke’s film by analysing more explicitly the relation between the film and the four theses on automatism. What I aim to show in the process is that Caché raises ethical questions about cinema by turning the panoptic gaze on its viewer. This entails exposing the viewer to the Lacanian gaze where the subject is caught “sustaining himself in the function of desire”.[17]

We have seen that Caché manifests a self-consciousness about cinema’s primary automatism by taking as its point of departure the operation of the camera in the mode of surveillance, while its concern with the image, in its various uses, can be thought of as one of the automatisms that the film interrogates. Caché’s ethical achievement is to be found in its denying the coherence of the world, that is, its incurving around me. This is carried out both by the film’s simultaneous arrogation of the viewer’s perception into the panoptic function of the camera (whether this function of seeing belongs to the director or the introjected out-of-field protagonist or the camera as such) and into the interiority of Georges’ mind, and by the narrative’s demand that we make sense of the images that we are given to see, even while it refuses to confirm our inferences. In other words, while the camera’s simultaneous importuning of and indifference to the desire to see and make sense of images shows us that we are the superfluous ones, the film stands as an example of ethical filmmaking because the fractured world that excludes us and whose meaning lacks finality is also an involuted world that implicates us in that meaning by making us responsible for it.

In his first contemplation of automatism, what Cavell takes from Bazin and emphasises is that the automatism of the camera entails the removal of subjectivity from its interference with the presentation of the world. In Caché, the missing reverse shot of classical cinema that would assure us of who it is that has the power of the looking renders automatism as panopticism. Caché thus reflects on Cavell’s first conception of cinematic automatism by observing that what cinema initially understood as the unquestionable right of its medium is the panoptic operation of the camera.

To understand cinema’s primary automatism as panopticism shifts the emphasis that Bazin and Cavell gave the concept. For them automatism entailed the removal of the subject as the limiting condition of the experience of the reality (Bazin) or presence of the world (Cavell). As an expression of automatism, panopticism implies the pure cold instrumentality of a non-living, indeed, disembodied, ‘seer’, an ‘all-seeing’ structure, and the subjection of the being who is ‘seen’. Whereas automatism as it is understood by Bazin and Cavell makes a gift of the world, panopticism functions as theft. It is the sinister obverse side of the generous operation of the camera taken as the basis of cinematic art. Bazin and Cavell are, of course, both writing before the dissemination of Foucault’s work on Bentham’s panopticon and, arguably, before the surveillance society had become as fully an operational expression of state power as it is today, but Cavell realises something of this power when he writes of the camera fixing the subject and “the absolute authority or finality of the fixed image” (TWV, 185).

Far from accepting this automatism as the virtue of cinema, Caché wants to contemplate its effects. Bound to the film’s primary automatism, panopticism is the efficient cause of the unravelling lives of the film’s protagonists.  As the opening premise of the film, panopticism in Caché institutes a tension between a purely machinic vision and the distribution of seen images by someone who knows about Georges’ history. As a television talk-show host, Georges is used to being seen, but he also expects to be in control of the image of himself that is projected, and not to have views taken of him at whim. Having been presented with an image of himself to see from the point-of-view of the other, he assumes he can pinpoint his anonymous interlocutor and intervene to prevent public channels of communication being used to relay private images that speak about, without saying anything directly, a deeply personal and shameful event in his past. Georges Laurent’s second act of selfishness and impropriety (his first being his unwillingness to share his parents with the orphaned Algerian boy and the deceit he engaged in to have his way) is his assuredness about his capacity to grasp the position from which he is viewed and arrest the flow (that is, the power) of images.[18] When Georges attempts to access the source of these unsolicited images as if the chain of signification can be dealt with by causal means, he finds a man who is incalculably more disturbed by the return of this traumatic past than he. He also finds that the perspective he had sought to grasp has eluded him.

In Cavell’s second take on automatism, he considers how cinema’s primary automatism (its photographic basis) allowed traditional cinema to avoid the problem of modern scepticism that afflicted philosophy and confronted the other arts because it gave us the unseen world that philosophers insisted was beyond our empirical and metaphysical reach. If traditional cinema is predicated on the notion that the camera reveals in its entirety what the world reveals to it, Caché simultaneously accepts and repudiates this presumption – it accepts it in a banal way and rejects it in a significant way. On one level, there is no question of the veracity of any of its images. Everything we see depends on perceptual realism, that is, on an identity between model and image; and the filmed image cannot but bear within itself the view that the camera relays what it apprehends in its entirety and relies on a compact with its audience that they accept that images reveal what the camera has seen. But the film also qualifies the power attributed to this automatism by showing that the camera in itself is unable to disclose the meaning of the visible. This is borne out by the inscrutability of images established from the very first shot of the film. More significantly, and somewhat paradoxically when considered in relation to its panoptic function, the film does not bear within itself the view that the camera sees everything, but rather that the camera, unable, and in this instance not wanting, to include itself in the picture, also withholds the meaning of what is seen. In the first place, panopticism operates as a subjection of the world that projects itself into the succession of images to scrutiny (and hence interpretation), but in the second place it shows that the function of seeing is not co-extensive with knowledge and understanding and that its ‘gift’ of the unseen world does not give us the full picture but depends on the camera remaining on the outside of the picture.

The film also shows that the disconnection of the world viewed from an embodied point-of-view (the video images from the out-of-field protagonist) discloses a gaze that has the power to incite a paranoiac undoing of the subject. The image unconstrained by an author speaks to the private individual, to Georges’ inner existence, and to the hidden narrative of his guilt and shame. Once the panoptic automatism of the camera starts to operate in this way it links up with other images to reactivate a scenario long repressed, unearthing not just a chain of significance but bringing other causalities into play – namely, the dissolution of Georges’ family life, Majid’s suicide, the question of Georges’ continuing employment once his boss takes possession of the video and refuses to return it. Were we to concur with Bazin that the aesthetic dimension of photography lies in its power to lay bare realities, the reality, so to speak, that Caché lays bare is not the perceptual reality of the seen image but the ‘spiritual’ reality of the force of repressed images that can be reactivated by the whim of another. The narrative of the film can thus be understood as a spiritual investment in the image’s power to extend beyond the limits of perceptual realism and activate the Real. The Real emerges not because of the presence of a visible reality but because of its absence, because the narrative implies ‘shots’ that are not seen – the shot of the sender that Georges does not see, the memories and dream images of Georges that Anne does not see, the shots of Majid that we do not see, etc. These absences result from ellipses in editing and it is by virtue of the absences created by montage that relations between images come to the fore.

Acknowledgement of and responsibility for automatisms is the subject of Cavell’s third and fourth meditations on automatism. Cavell ties this requirement for acknowledgement and responsibility to his own loss of belief in the mythical nature of cinema and to the world withdrawing itself from view. Let’s be clear though, Cavell’s innocent belief in the mythical age of cinema is founded on a primary disavowal.  From the time of its invention, film devoted itself to mastering its primary automatism and sought to do so by a variety of means (by narrative, mise-en-scène, editing, auteurism and auteurist criticism, genres and genre criticism, to name just the most obvious ones). Filmmakers might not have had to master film’s photographic capacity to capture the world, but they did have to master its capacity to present that world as meaningful and thence to limit the meaning it afforded. Even those like Epstein, whose rhetoric about cinema, according to Rancière, undeniably quested after a romantic utopianism that revelled in the idea that cinematic automatism gives us the world in its own image, relied on narrative structures borrowed from literature to make his idea of photogénie apparent.[19]

Cavell implies as much in his distinction between primary and secondary automatisms and in the distinction between automatism as a material cause and as a formal cause. The art of the first age of cinema (the mythical or magical age) was nothing other than the mastery of material cause by formal cause. Editing, for example, is a means of realising the power of the image, of distributing it and of constraining it. The purpose of editing makes the succession of automatic world projections intentional. But it is also the case that combining images does not entirely subordinate film’s primary automatism because images interact autonomously and exceed intentional intervention. Both the world viewed and the unseen world retain an incomparable power to exceed all attempts at formal constraint. And in addition, the viewer has their own images – as Haneke shows us in the case of Georges, but even more significantly which he doesn’t show us in the case of Majid – that supplement formal intervention and which can, and in the film do, run their own course.

With regard to Cavell’s final development of the concept of automatism in relation to scepticism and acknowledgement, clearly Haneke takes responsibility for his enagement of cinema’s automatisms but he also turns the question of responsibility over to the viewer. By partially aligning us with Georges, the film’s least sympathetic protagonist, at the level of perception, Haneke both asks us to bear him some compassion and requires us to consider the equivalence between Georges’ prejudicial summations about who the perpetrator is and our own inferences about the meaning of images. Right up until and including the last shot of the film, Haneke systematically displaces or withholds the meaning of the images in order to repeatedly expose our enthusiasm for drawing conclusions that have no more foundation in truth than any of Georges’ speculations. For example, we take it for granted that we are watching a film only to find that we are watching a video internal to the diegesis, and vice versa; and we surmise to begin with that the threat to the Laurents will be focussed on their son Pierrot, only to learn that Georges is the target. When Georges gets into a spat with a curly-haired black cyclist, we assume the incident has something to do with the images that Georges has received. While displacements of inference are commonly used for entertainment purposes in the genre of the whodunit, the trajectories of such narratives are ultimately driven in the direction of certainty and resolution. Caché, however, frustrates our certitude at every instance.

Consider the final shot of the film. It can be read as implicating the two sons in a conspiracy against their fathers, and Haneke’s other films support such a view. Benny’s Video (1992) made before Caché, and The White Ribbon (2009) made after it, provide evidence of the director’s interest in children testing the limits of their immediate world by orchestrating scenarios or creating images to insert into the world in order to gauge the responses of others, particularly adults. But this evidence is not conclusive and Haneke deliberately holds us at a distance from the boys’ meeting by filming them in a long shot in a crowded frame. Even if we see them, we hear nothing of what they say to each other. We don’t know what the precipitating cause of their meeting is, whether they already know each other, what Majid’s son is saying, why he appears at first to be justifying himself, why the boys reconcile before they part company. The inference that they are responsible for sending the videos and the drawings undoubtedly raises an interesting array of questions of a moral and ethical nature, not least of which is what such an act says about Haneke’s direction of the film as an allegory of the repressed memory of France’s culpability in the Paris Massacre or Austria’s in World War II. The audience can’t be prevented from interpreting images, and even from resolving the narrative in ways that the film refrains from, but the risk we expose ourselves to in so doing is to become caught up in the sedimentation of a series of suppositions of which our understanding has been repeatedly shown to be limited. This implicates us further in Georges’ prejudicial judgements and discriminatory acts and connects us with the violence that ensues from jumping to conclusions about what images mean. Perhaps, then, Haneke’s point in provoking ontological, epistemological and phenomenological anxiety, in intentionally withholding any assurance of meaning, is to make us sceptical about taking any images at face value. In not delivering us to certainty and resolution, the conclusion of the film’s narrative asks us to suspend judgement and to acknowledge what it is we don’t know, and how the image, for all its power to connect with other images, indeed, because of that power, resists interpretation.



André, Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? Volume I, trans. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

Walter Benjamin, ‘A Short History of Photography’, Screen, 13, (1972) 5-26.

Peter Brunette, Michael Haneke, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979).

______, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981).

______, Contesting Tears: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

______, Cinema 1: l’image movement (Paris: Minuit, 1983).

______, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone, 1989).

Kathleen Kelley, ‘Faithful Mechanisms: Bazin’s Modernism’, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, vol. 17, no. 4 (2012), 23-37.

Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000).

Rosalind Krauss, ‘Two Moments from the Post-Medium Condition’, October, no.116 (Spring 2006), 55-62.

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979).

James Phillips, ‘The Fates of Flesh: Cinematic Realism Following Bazin and Mizoguchi.’ Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, vol. 17, no. 4 (2012), 9-22.

Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista, (Oxford: Berg, 2006).

William Rothman, ‘The Filmmaker within the Film: The Role of Octave in The Rules of the GameQuarterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 7, no. 3 (1982), 225-236.

Bill Rothman and Marian Keane, Reading Cavell’s The World Viewed: A Philosophical Perspective on Film, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000).

Libby Saxton, ‘Secrets and revelations: Off-screen space in Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005)’, Studies in French Cinema, vol. 7, no. 1 (2007), 5-17.

Robert Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images, (London and New York: Continuum, 2011).

Oliver C. Speck, Funny Frames: The Filmic Concepts of Michael Haneke (New York: Continuum, 2010).

Temenuga Trifonova, ‘The Twilight of the Index’, Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, no. 2. (2011), 1-13.

Catherine Wheatley, Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image (New York: Berghagn Books, 2009).



Jean Epstein, La Chute de la maison Usher. (France 1928)

Michael Haneke, Benny’s Video. (Austria, Switzerland, 1992)

Michael Haneke, Caché. (France, Austria, Germany, Italy, USA, 2005)

Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon. (Germany, Austria, France, Italy, 2009)

Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo. (USA, 1958).

Jean Renoir, La Règle du jeu. (France, 1939).


[1] Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 10. Temenuga Trifonova observes that Rosalind Krauss understands aesthetic conventions as “’reinventing’ the medium by rethinking the Idea of Art itself”. Krauss, ‘Two Moments from the Post-Medium Condition’, October 116 (Spring 2006), 55-62; Trifonova, ‘The Twilight of the Index’, Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, no. 2. 2011, 2.
[2] Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? Volume I. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley University of California Press, 12
[3] Lisa Trahair ‘Being on the Outside: Cinematic Automatism in Stanley Cavell’s World Viewed’, Film-Philosophy Journal, forthcoming.
[4] To quote Cavell in full here:
The material basis of the media of movies (as paint on a flat, delimited support is the material basis of the media of painting) is, in the terms which have so far made their appearance, a succession of automatic world projections. ‘Succession’ includes the various degrees of motion in moving pictures: the motion depicted; the current successive frames in depicting it; the juxtapositions of cutting. ‘Automatic’ emphasizes the mechanical fact of photography, in particular the absence of the human hand in forming these objects and the absence of its creatures in their screening. ‘World’ covers the ontological facts of photography and its subjects. ‘Projection’ points to the phenomenological facts of viewing, and to the continuity of the camera’s motion as it ingests the world. (TWV, 72-73).
[5] Kathleen Kelley also considers not just the mechanical apprehension of reality but the projection of reality. Trying to reconcile Bazin’s conception of realism in cinema with Clement Greenberg’s modernism, Kelly considers the difficulties that arise when the medium of art is reality. Modernism’s emphasis on medium specificity (Greenbergian modernism in particular) means that “a medium committed to realism is a medium committed to its own destruction, for in seeking realism as perfection, it seeks to efface itself more and more completely, erasing any unique characteristics it might have in order to become a more perfect conduit” (‘Faithful Mechanisms: Bazin’s Modernism’, Angelaki, vol. 17, no. 4, December 2012, (22-38), 25-6). It is tempting to reconcile these two automatisms by arguing that indexicality unifies the reality projected and the photographic image into a single identity, but this is not something that Cavell says. Nor do I think there is much to be gained by proposing that indexicality is the technical name for Bazinian automatism as Kelley does.
[6] What is significant in the secular presentation of spiritualised existence in film is that causal reason and symbolic meaning don’t function as independent and non-transferable realms even though we think they should. For André Bazin, the dialectical possibility of cinema lies in this very tension between physical causality (which includes chance) and symbolic possibility which it is the task of the filmmaker to negotiate.
[7] Why Cavell understands this event in negative terms rather than say acknowledging the new adventurousness of thought evidenced in the scientific discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus is not something that can be pursued here but it is worth bearing in mind as an indicator of the fact that Cavell has a very particular interpretation of the significance of the Enlightenment.
[8] In the chapter ‘The Medium and Media of Film’, where Cavell observes the loss of continuing relevance of the genres and types of traditional film, he notes that serious works have begun to question that tradition and sees them as ‘moving into the modernist predicament in which an art has lost its natural relation to its history, in which an artist, exactly because he is devoted to making an object that will bear the same weight of experience that such objects have always borne which constitute the history of his art, is compelled to find un-heard of structures that define themselves and their history against one another’. TWV, 72.
[9] Cavell finishes the sentence: “and I started to list some of the them to try to determine which limits they discover” (TWV, 147). The technical assertions he recalls having considered are “silence, isolation in fantasy, the mysteries of human motion and separateness” (TWV, 147), discussion of which had been undertaken in the preceding chapter ‘Assertions in Techniques’. It is a curious fact that Cavell does not at this point recapitulate the significance of his discussions of exhibition and self-reference and the camera’s implication (namely, the chapters which come between his excursus into modernist painting and his contemplation of technical assertions).
[10] Catherine Wheatley, Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, New York: Berghagn Books, 2009), 153. Wheatley is also wrong with respect to both Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage and Contesting Tears: Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, both of which build their argument by focusing on the detail of cinematic form.
[11] Wheatley, 179.
[12] Kelley also notes this aspect of Cavell’s work. ‘Faithful Mechanisms’, 30.
[13] Commentators have noted that the street is aptly named Rue des Iris and there are numerous other tropes of vision scattered throughout the mise-en-scène. It is telling that every commentary on the film is compelled to describe in detail this opening sequence to constitute the ground for discussing it.
[14] The first video is one of six that are sent and the first of five that the Laurents receive. Regarding the second video cassette, we are given access to the original scene as it takes place but we don’t know the status of the image we are watching until two scenes later when Anne has summoned Georges home from work and we see the previously viewed scene being rewound through the Laurents’ cassette player. The camera occupies the same position as the first video, but this time it is evening and it shows Georges returning from work. The deception of the audience in relation to the images we are given to see occurs again with the fourth video when we realise only at the end of the sequence that the footage shot from a car approaching high-rise housing and then cutting to an interior corridor leading to the door of apartment 047 is pre-recorded.
[15] See William Rothman, ‘The Filmmaker within the Film: The Role of Octave in The Rules of the GameQuarterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, 1982, 225-236.
[16] ‘Secrets and revelations: Off-screen space in Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), Studies in French Cinema, vol. 7, no. 1, 2007, (5-17), p. 7; Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: l’image mouvement, Paris: Minuit, 1983, 30-31.r
[17] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979, 85.
[18] It is here in its laying bare of the ungraspability of the image of ‘myself’ from the perspective of the other that the gaze as objet petit a kicks in.
[19] I’m thinking in particular of his film La Chute de la maison Usher (1928), a cinematic adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher). See Rancière, Film Fables, Trans. Emiliano Battista. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

About the Author

Lisa Trahair

About the Author

Lisa Trahair

Lisa Trahair is Senior Lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales. She is author of The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick (SUNY, 2007). She has published essays on film in numerous journals, including Screen, New Formations, Senses of Cinema, Film-Philosophy and South Atlantic Quarterly. She is currently working on an ARC funded project entitled “Film as Philosophy: What is Cinematic Thinking?” with Robert Sinnerbrink and Gregory Flaxman. Essays relating to this project have been published in The Philosophy of Radical Equality: Jacques Rancière and the Contemporary Scene, edited by Alison Ross and Jean-Philippe Deranty and Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers, edited by Felicity Colman. In 2012 she co-edited with Lisabeth During a special issue of Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities on Belief in Cinema which revisits themes from André Bazin (17.4, December 2012). Another essay on Stanley Cavell will appear in a forthcoming issue of Film-Philosophy.View all posts by Lisa Trahair →