War Child: Memory, Childhood and Algerian Pasts in Recent French Film
War Child: Memory, Childhood and Algerian Pasts in Recent French Film
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers how recent films have interrogated France's Algerian pasts, and focuses particularly on their recurrent focalisation of it through the figure of the (invariably male) child: consequently raising questions about the formation and life of memory and its gendered transmission or suppression between generations. If, for example, the conventions of period genre adopted by Michou d’Auber (Thomas Gilou, 2007) and Cartouches Gauloises (Mehdi Charef, 2007) enable them to raise proleptic questions both about the Franco-Algerian relationship and about individual memory and identity in the wake of the conflict, the contemporary setting of Michael Haneke's Caché (2005) allows his film to dramatise how the conflict's legacy continues to permeate French society and the struggle between memory and forgetting which still defines it. Close analysis of these three films therefore explores how the conflict has been remembered in cinema and probes the links between childhood, France's Algerian pasts and the conflict's enduring resonance in twenty-first-century France.
In keeping with the heightened awareness of the Algerian War provoked by key anniversaries during the first decade of the twenty-first century (fortieth anniversary of 17 October 1961 and the ceasefire of March 1962; fiftieth anniversary of the start of the war), the period also saw a distinctive surge in the number of French-produced or co-produced feature-length films that explicitly tackled the subject of the conflict. Alain Tasma's Nuit noire (2005), for example, dramatised the events leading up to 17 October 1961 and the night itself in Paris. Philippe Faucon's La Trahison (2006) and Florent Emilio Siri's L'Ennemi intime (2007) focused on French military experiences in Algeria. Laurent Herbiet's Mon colonel (2006) weaved together scenes set in present-day France with flashbacks from wartime Algeria in its examination of French army uses of torture. Meanwhile, Hugues Martin and Sandra Martin broke with the realist conventions of these films, setting their unusual supernatural thriller Djinns (2010) in the Algerian Sahara in 1960.
Although far from the first French films to address the Algerian War, several reasons can be advanced to explain this concentrated number of releases post-2000 of films wholly or partially set during the wartime period.1 Jean-Pierre Jeancolas (2007: 44) has argued that French directors have historically been reluctant to film war at the time of its fighting, choosing instead to represent it much later on. Moreover, fear of censorship by the French state during the conflict itself undoubtedly encouraged self-censorship amongst filmmakers, consequently reducing the likelihood of warfare scenes appearing in films released at the time. (p.94) Furthermore, Benjamin Stora (2002) has suggested that a period of thirty or forty years following the end of a war may be necessary before certain memories and realities of it can become widely acknowledged publicly, a point ostensibly substantiated by the 1992 release of Bertrand Tavernier and Patrick Rotman's documentary film La Guerre sans nom, which foregrounded the first-hand testimony of a range of French army conscripts and soldiers during the Algerian War, many of whom had never before spoken publicly of their wartime experiences. As Dine (1994: 232) argues, the parallels that La Guerre sans nom shares with another landmark documentary film interrogating the complex wartime experiences of French citizens, Marcel Ophuls's Le Chagrin et la Pitié (1971), seem more than coincidental.2
In terms of contemporary filmmaking practicalities, location shooting in Algeria (presumably desirable for directors in terms of on screen authenticity) became more feasible for foreign film crews following the end of the Algerian civil war in the early 2000s, and recent French-made releases have subsequently been filmed there. Moreover, the phenomenal success of Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes (2006), which focused on the fate of a group of Maghrebi soldiers serving in the French army during the Second World War, confirmed that a focus on wartime Franco-Algerian relations could be commercially viable for the mainstream French film industry, especially when all the Algerians shown on screen fly under the French flag.
Finally, the confluence of a number of events related to the Algerian War in France around the turn of the twenty-first century – such as the Papon trial in October 1997; the French state's official recognition of the war as a war in June 1999; Le Monde's publication in June 2000 of Louisette Ighilahriz's accounts of her torture in 1957 by French soldiers; and the flurry of books published to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the war's end in 2002 – ensured that the visibility of memories of the conflict increased and awareness of its aftermath was heightened (Stora 2004). The clear thirst of both the public and the media in France for the subject during this period may duly have inspired the genesis of a number of the subsequent films that dwell upon the war and its aftermath; and, as we noted in the Introduction, France's increasing historical distance from the Algerian War has allowed for the depiction of a greater range of experiences both of the conflict and its legacy.3
This chapter will examine three such examples to interrogate how cinema in France post-2000 has engaged with the Algerian War. So (p.95) as to explore the parameters of representation during this period, we have chosen films that, although released within a short time frame, differ markedly from one another: Mehdi Charef's Cartouches gauloises (2007), Thomas Gilou's Michou d'Auber (2007) and Michael Haneke's Caché (2005).4 Shot by very different directors, set in dissimilar locations and during distinctive periods, these three films also use contrasting genres, differences that might ordinarily impede their direct comparison.5 Nevertheless, several important themes resonate between them and facilitate their joint analysis. All three provide a look back at the past of both France and Algeria, and invite viewers to contemplate the vicissitudes of memory and history. Furthermore, they do so through their shared and striking preoccupation with the perspective and gaze of children, and male children in particular.
It is Caché, of course, that remains the most famous of these three films and that has consistently generated new scholarship: surely, few recent French films can rival it in terms of the critical attention it persistently attracts, underlined by its recent inclusion already as one of the few French-language films in the British Film Institute (BFI) Film Classics series (Wheatley 2011).6 If we too evoke it here, however, it is in order to analyse it in the context of a wider visual economy, one beyond the film itself and Haneke's filmography, which remain the dominant parameters in which it is typically discussed. By positioning it here alongside two other recent films that engage with the Algerian War, our chapter will consider what Haneke's film reveals about the visual economy of France and Algeria and the extent to which it conforms to other recent films that have also tackled events during the wartime era, and focused especially on children during this period.
Evoking the representation of children in films set during the Algerian War might automatically lead viewers to recall the film most readily associated globally with the conflict, namely Gillo Pontecorvo's La Bataille d'Alger (1966). However, in contrast to the prominence given to the young male child Petit Omar in the Italo-Algerian co-production – a trend reflected in Algerian cinema more widely – few French films set during the war feature children as main characters within the cast.7 This chapter therefore sets out to examine some of the stakes involved in making children and childhood memories so prominent within these retrospective representations and explores how the films portray the figure of the child during the Algerian War and its aftermath.
We start our analysis by considering a film set in the spring of 1962 in Algeria, as the war reaches its end. Directed by Mehdi Charef, Cartouches gauloises is told from the perspective of Ali, an eleven-year-old Algerian schoolboy (loosely based on Charef himself) who is the film's main protagonist and lives in a provincial Algerian town (Fig. 5).8 His part-time job as a local newspaper vendor provides a convenient device with which to introduce viewers to the local inhabitants Ali meets on his round and, given the considerable access to many different sectors this intermediary position affords him, to penetrate a variety of spaces, from a pro-OAS café and army prison cells to a brothel frequented by French soldiers. Happy-go-lucky Ali gets on well with everyone he meets, and his ability to cross ethnic boundaries is also shown via his friendship with many pied-noir peers, and in particular with Nico. As the war continues, however, one by one his pied-noir friends leave for France and after Nico's departure the film ends with Algerian independence being celebrated, just as Ali's father seems set to return from fighting with troops.
This conventional happy ending, however, belies the violence that precedes it. Repeatedly punctuated with point-blank shootings, summary executions and bomb explosions, along with glimpses of the death and destruction their aftermath brings, Charef's film quickly establishes a murderous cycle of violence whose end only emerges as the final scenes herald the prospect of French defeat. For a film set during the Algerian War to represent such violence is certainly not uncommon. What is distinctive is the way in which Cartouches gauloises frequently shows such violence from the perspective of a child.
Critical reaction to the film in France was mixed. Although praised by some for tackling the subject, and for certain performances, others dismissed the film as too didactic and pedagogical. Le Monde seemed disappointed by its conventionality and argued that its ‘avalanche’ of historical episodes distracts attention away from Ali and Nico, overwhelming the chronicle of childhood (Sotinel 2007). In a similar vein, Libération labelled Cartouches gauloises a ‘tir mal ajusté’9 and considered it heavy and stifling. Reviewers also cited the film's lack of plausibility as one of its chief failures. Owing to its acute focus on the endgame of the Algerian War, many critics categorised Cartouches gauloises as belonging above all to the genre of historical film. Very few (p.97)
By showing a slumbering Ali kissed goodbye by his father, the opening sequence arguably heralds such a mood, and a sense of the dream-like permeates several scenes that follow. The static point-of-view shots that focus on acute details during extended takes, such as the close-up on the gramophone record playing on a loop as Julie's murdered relatives lie slumped in their garden, suggest elements of the hyperreal. The aura of heightened senses also extends to sound. Whereas extra-diegetic music is seldom heard, the soundtrack's volume appears augmented during moments of violence and tension witnessed by Ali, thus accentuating the gunshots heard when a friend of Ali's mother, Habiba, is executed; the detonation of a bomb in a pied-noir bar; and the scream of the boy dropped from a French army helicopter followed by the thud of his body against the ground. Furthermore, shown often as a silent and largely motionless bystander, Ali habitually appears strangely aloof from events in a way which suggests somnambulance.
(p.98) Yet to show such wartime violence largely via children presents Charef with a problem. For were they to react as viewers might expect – recoiling, running away or closing their eyes – point-of-view shots from their perspective would prevent much of such violence and its aftermath from being shown directly. Moreover, because Charef usually elects to show acts of violence directly on screen, rather than, for example, children flinching from it, Ali and his peers also watch almost all of those committed, and many shots duly emphasise their spectatorship within such sequences. Even if the frequency with which they are shown bearing witness to such violence might make their potential desensiti-sation to it comprehensible, their often understated reactions jar and consequently stretch credibility, suggesting Charef neglected to think through the problematic of how children can be shown witnessing such violence.12 At the same time, while the film's rhythm of following such scenes with lighter moments (such as having Nico reassure Julie that they will find her missing cat as they walk away from her murdered family, or showing Ali calmly eating a sweet after seeing a French soldier shoot dead a man at the market) avoids the tone becoming too dark, it also risks creating bathos, thereby further emphasising the children's odd disconnection from the events around them.
Indeed, the film does not seek to explore what effect the witnessing of so much violence might have on a child such as Ali. The trauma it risks inducing is never voiced, as, without siblings and seldom seen with his mother, Ali confides in no one, and viewers are given very few insights into his inner thoughts. With the war only evoked amongst schoolfriends via playful banter and taunts, Ali's personal experiences do not seem capable of being verbalised, which, notwithstanding his considerable resilience, only makes him appear even more peculiarly unfazed by events.13 We shall see later how this seemingly uncomplicated spectatorship of violence contrasts sharply with Haneke's Caché, where the representation of violence and the theme of children viewing violence are presented as far more complex and affecting.
Charef's recurrent habit of showing Ali and friends watching violence neverthless merits further reflection. For, even if the children's remarkable composure defies belief, this distinctive use of mise en scène draws attention to the filmic aspects of events depicted on screen, and hints that a reflexive meta-level within the film may also be detected. In particular, the frequent shots showing Ali looking through windows and apertures (at Julie's family home, for example, or when he witnesses Habiba's execution), establishes the importance of framing, and a sense (p.99) that elements of the film might constitute a mise en abyme of filmmaking itself is further strengthened at various points. In a tribute to Ali's love of cinema, the pied-noir stationmaster Barnabé – a surrogate father figure for Ali – narrates his own departure for France as if reciting directions and dialogue from a film script, complete with horn sounding on cue at the requisite moment. He ends with a plea to Ali that ‘il faut pas nous oublier, petit: sinon on est morts’.14 His reference to forgetting links this sequence to Charef's earlier and most explicit allusion to filmmaking, when Ali (based, as we have pointed out, on Charef himself, of course) delights in watching Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1951) from the projectionist's booth in his local cinema.
Foreshadowing Charef's later career as film director, Ali is shown muting the sound to voice the lines spoken by a young boy, who, like Ali, is also waiting for his father to return. Despite its very different setting of early 1950s' Mexico, Buñuel's film also shares further parallels with Charef's: the importance of looking and sight is underscored by the name of the young boy that Ali ventriloquises (Ojitos or ‘little eyes’) and the fact that Don Carmelo, with whom he converses, is blind.15 Childhood and violence similarly form part of its main themes and, once this Buñuelian link becomes apparent, Ali's sleeping during the opening scene and the dream-like qualities of Charef's film might also recall the famous sequence of Los Olvidados showing young Pedro's nightmare, which forms part of the wider unreality of Buñuel's film. Although its bleak vision of urban life and humanity may differ markedly from Charef's portrayal of the final days of French Algeria – and it is surely a highly unlikely film for a child as young as Ali to enjoy and know so well – Los Olvidados clearly forms a notable and unusual intertext within Cartouches gauloises, its inclusion strangely fitting given the disjunctures in mood present within Charef's film.
In conclusion, it was perhaps the many ways in which Charef's film departed from traditional notions of the historical film that led reviewers to find it wanting and its lack of credulity testing. Presenting children as remarkably composed bystanders in the face of such violence strikes an odd note in what is otherwise a fairly conventional film and arguably impedes viewers' suspension of disbelief. It also suggests that Charef did not fully consider how problematic the sight of children witnessing such violence might be. However, the reflexive meta-level discernable within Cartouches gauloises, through its repeated emphasis upon filmmaking and its various oneiric qualities, might suggest that despite the historical subject matter and autobiographical inspiration, (p.100) realism was not Charef's prerogative.16 The Algerian War seen through Ali's eyes – Charef's double lest we forget – becomes more a personal act of remembrance by the director that challenges viewers' expectations in order to present an idiosyncratic portrait of the dying days of French rule in Algeria.
Michou d'Auber: Passing as ‘French’ in the Métropole
We now move away from the advent of independence in Algeria to a film set two years earlier back across the Mediterranean, Thomas Gilou's Michou d'Auber (2007). Through its setting in wartime metropolitan France, Gilou's film presents an exception to most recent Algerian War-era films, relatively few of which have focused on wartime experiences in the métropole.17 If pathos was the intended dominant mode of Cartouches gauloises, humour is undoubtedly the driving force of Michou d'Auber. Set predominantly within a small countryside village in the Berry region, the war's front line is far more distant in comparison to Charef's film, but its effects still form a distinct backdrop to this period comedy set within la France profonde of the early 1960s. The plot revolves around another young male child of Algerian heritage, but, unlike Ali in Cartouches gauloises, his view is not foregrounded and he must share centre stage, his co-stars being none other than two of France's most popular actors, Gérard Depardieu and Natalie Baye.
Beginning in the autumn of 1960 and concluding shortly after the war's end, Michou d'Auber tells the story of nine-year-old Messaoud, born in Aubervilliers to Algerian parents with whom he and his older brother Abdel live. Their family life together is never shown on screen. Rather, the film's opening sequence sees Messaoud's father Akli, unable to juggle work and parental responsibilities following his wife's admission to hospital with a long-term illness, hand over his sons for them to be lodged indefinitely with foster-parents. Their short walk across Paris beforehand opens events and, by clearly situating the action in wartime metropolitan France and striking a humorous tone, efficiently sets the mood for the film as a whole. Indeed, the initial comedy is aided by the appearance of the famous Algerian comedian Fellag as Michou's father Akli, whom viewers see warn his two sons to beware of lions in the streets, just before they exit the Métro opposite the famous lion sculpture that adorns Place Denfert-Rochereau in central Paris. Their exit at this station recalls an earlier war on French soil (the lion commemorates the (p.101) efforts of Colonel Denfert-Rochereau during the siege of Belfort in the Franco-Prussian War) and the sense that France is under military threat once again is quickly established. As they exit the Métro, the camera carefully shows pro-Algérie française graffiti chalked on the steps they climb up, and a prominent voice off-camera declares that ‘on a perdu l'Algérie avec le Parti communiste’.18 A climate of suspicion and hatred is then evoked in the subsequent scene where, as they pass a large wall scrawled with the graffiti ‘FLN dehors’ and ‘Mort aux Arabes’, police officers coincidentally detain four men at gunpoint, two of whom are held prostrate over a car bonnet while they interview another who may be of Maghrebi origin.19
This atmosphere of xenophobia extends beyond the doors of the Assistance publique where Akli deposits his two sons. When Messaoud, classified officially as a ‘Français musulman’, is later presented as a possible foster-child to Gisèle (played by Baye), her first reaction is to call him a ‘petit Arabe’: a predictable assumption made all the more ironic by the preceding sequence's emphasis upon the Kabyle, and therefore Berber, origins of Michou's family. She then claims that the wartime colonial experiences of her army veteran husband Georges (played by Depardieu) would render it impossible for them to accept Messaoud. Nevertheless, when Gisèle, having previously rejected two other potential foster-children, realises that Messaoud is the final child she will be offered, she relents and returns home with him. Messaoud's brother Abdel is subsequently placed separately with a couple who run a nearby farm, both of whom are also white and presented as part of the French ethnic majority.
The brothers' arrival within their new homes, however, is not perceived as an opportunity to embrace ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Whereas the woman who returns home with Abdel is told ‘tu t'es fais avoir’20 by her husband, Gisèle immediately attempts to dissimulate Messaoud's origins in advance of her husband Georges meeting him. In a remarkable sequence, viewers see her quickly dye Messaoud's dark curly hair blond, hide his birth certificate and instruct him henceforth to forget his family. She also informs him that he must now pretend to be Christian and, given that Georges ‘n'aime pas trop les noms arabes’21 and neither do other locals, she persuades Messaoud to adopt the name of Michel, which is then abbreviated to Michou (Fig. 6). Finally, anticipating some of the questions that locals may duly ask him about his background, Gisèle tells (the now) Michou to say he hails from the north and that his father was seriously injured in the mining industry (p.102)
Such a plot may seem incredible, even for a popular comedy, but it in fact chimes well with Gilou's previous films, such as La Vérité si je mens! (1997) and La Vérité si je mens! 2 (2001), which also pivoted around attempts by characters to pass as ethnically different others (McGonagle 2007). By focusing on an outsider's penetration of a small community constituted as a discrete ethnic group, Michou d'Auber remained faithful to the formula Gilou had previously deployed, and created a similar dynamic between identity, performance and passing in order to produce much of the comedy on screen. In La Vérité si je mens!, however, the gentile Daniel's need to convince those around him of his Jewishness made this a much more active process. In Michou d'Auber, the young Michou is comparatively more passive in performing his new identity and both he and Gisèle largely rely upon their fellow villagers assuming he belongs to the white ethnic majority.22
The film's peculiar plot led critics to identify several earlier popular films whose dynamic also revolved around ethnic or cultural differences between children and the surrogate parents with whom they live, such as Jean-Loup Hubert's Le Grand Chemin (1987). Two such films centred on Second World War experiences: Claude Berri's Le Vieil Homme et l'enfant (1967) (p.103) where a nine-year-old boy in 1943 is sent from Paris to Grenoble and must keep his Jewishness secret; and Moshe Mizrahi's La Vie devant soi (1977), where Simone Signoret plays a concentration camp survivor who acts as surrogate mother in 1970s' Paris for Momo, a young boy of Maghrebi origin. Such connections between the Second World War and the Algerian War, and the attendant parallels between Jewish and Algerian experience in twentieth-and twenty-first-century France, evoke the links explored by Rothberg (2009) in his examination of the ways in which ‘multidirectional memory’ can connect different groups in spite of contrasting contexts. This transition from Second World War Jewish experience to Algerian experience in France also recalls arguments that the 1990s heralded a decisive shift in French popular historical memory and culture, where the memorialisation of Vichy in French popular culture began to be supplanted by a surge in public remembrance of the Algerian War (Austin 2009: 117). Yet, while the increase in French-produced and co-produced films that focus on the Algerian War post-2000 ostensibly further accentuates this trend, the release of several films set during the Occupation, such as La Rafle (Roselyne Bosch, 2010), Elle s'appellait Sarah (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010) and Les Hommes libres (Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2011), suggests that experiences of Vichy France continue to resonate with audiences in France and can cohabit cinematically with the Algerian War on screen.23 Indeed, the last-mentioned film explicitly links Jewish and Algerian experiences in France by focusing on the friendship between an Algerian migrant in 1942 Paris with a singer of Algerian Jewish origin, thereby highlighting precisely the kind of imbrication championed by Rothberg's study.
Although there are hints to the Occupation era within Michou d'Auber (Georges tells Michou that local man Didier was a collaborator, and the priest admits to Gisèle that he issued false baptismal certificates to Jewish children during the Second World War), Gilou's focus remains squarely on how Michou's Algerian origins can remain hidden and, as prevailing binary notions of identity ensure that being simultaneously French and of Algerian origin is perceived as oxymoronic, he can therefore by default pass as ‘French’.24 Moreover, since the village population appears to be exclusively white, Frenchness and whiteness are conflated. This explains why Michou too must be ‘whitened’, both physically, via the bleaching of his hair by Gisèle, and symbolically, by the adoption of a name of greater linguistic consonance with provincial French metropolitan norms. He finds himself thereby integrated into his new society, in an acting out of the French republic's secular and (p.104) assimilationist dream. His metamorphosis complete, the stage is set for a predictable series of trials and tribulations to ensue, providing the main narrative thread for the film's remainder.
Though Michou appears to be accepted by locals, the various queries people raise with regard to his origins ultimately indicate how delusional Gisèle's masquerade is. Nevertheless, despite the elaborate lengths to which she goes to conceal the truth from Georges, Gisèle's fears with regard to his reaction prove unfounded. When their lodger Paul tells Georges that he knows that Michou is ‘arabe’, Georges claims he suspected as much and, although predictably he instructs Paul not to tell anyone, he never confronts Michou and his relationship with him seems unaffected. When Georges's suspicions are subsequently confirmed by his drunken discovery of Michou's hidden birth certificate, it provides an epiphany that leads to Georges reuniting with Gisèle (who left him after he reacted violently to news of her affair with Jacques) and accepting Michou's ethnic difference.
Before this reconciliation, however, the film has to mark Georges's definitive rupture with his fellow local army veterans, all of whom are uniformly represented as bigoted OAS sympathisers. Gilou does this by having Georges declare to them in a local bar, with no trace of irony, that ‘maintenant je peux le dire sans honte: je suis un Arabe, et puis je suis un Juif aussi […] comptez plus sur moi: à partir d'aujourd'hui on se connaît plus’.25 To emphasise further his difference from them, he asks Duval how many people he raped and tortured in Algeria during the war. Despite Georges's clear beauf tendencies (he is shown as hard-drinking, womanising and boorish in several scenes, not to mention chauvinistic and misogynistic), the film positions Gaullist Georges as the voice of reason amongst men in the village when they express anti-Gaullist sentiments and vocal support for the OAS. Indeed, Depardieu excels in this role, which conforms to his well-established star image by combining an imposing physicality with inner emotional sensitivity (Austin 2003: 90). The egalitarian discourse he preaches, even if viewers may struggle to see the extent to which Georges's symbolic power as French white male heterosexual might equate to that of religious or ethnic minority groups within France, ultimately recalls the key message of Gilou's previous films: namely, that ethnic, cultural and religious differences can be overcome and need not stand in the way of love and friendship.
Given Gilou's wider oeuvre, Georges's Damascene conversion may therefore appear preordained. Its rapidity is nonetheless striking, given Georges's casual racism and the backhanded comments he makes to (p.105) Michou earlier in the film. For example, the sight of Michou socialising with Muslim families while selling sheep ahead of Eid to a group of men in a nearby town prompts Georges later to ask Michou whether he might have any Moroccan heritage. Michou denies this, but Georges reassures him that ‘je crois que même si tu me disais que tu étais arabe […] ça me gênerait pas’26 and, anticipating the speech he later delivers to locals, concludes that ‘on est tous pareils, on est tous différents. […] Qu'on soit d'ici ou d'ailleurs on est tous égaux’.27 This championing of egalitarianism nevertheless contradicts some of the vocabulary Georges uses elsewhere, the most flagrant example of which occurs when, incensed that his secret stash of money to fund his visits to prostitutes has been stolen, he interrogates Paul and Michou and informs them that ‘tous les bicots sont des voleurs: c'est pour cela qu'on leur coupe la main!’28 The irony that he stashes his money in a Banania tin – a brand whose distinctive colonial imagery has perpetuated racist stereotypes (Rosello 1998: 5) – may not be lost on some viewers and coheres with the film's clear lack of political correctness. The film's dialogue here ultimately seems part of a deliberate strategy by Gilou to evoke the politics of an era, supposedly bygone within metropolitan France, when such comments were more prevalent and publicly acceptable. However, and as the continuing popularity within the contemporary era of merchandise with original Banania branding demonstrates (Donadey 2000: 28), the film risks propagating an unreconstructed brand of colonial nostalgia in doing so.
Such overt displays of racism by Georges would therefore substantiate Gisèle's earlier claim that he would never agree to foster a child of Algerian origin, perhaps making her extraordinary attempts to disguise Messaoud's identity more comprehensible. Moreover, Georges is far from alone in expressing hostility towards people of Algerian origin, as the film suggests that such intolerance is widespread amongst village locals. Viewers see a child in the school playground label Michou and his brother ‘bougnoles’, and several of the village's army veterans are shown discussing the merits of conducting a ratonnade (lynching). Even if the film's candour in depicting such racism and xenophobia is striking, the conventions of the film's genre generally work to defuse any tension by ensuring that their proponents appear patently ridiculous. Viewers are encouraged to laugh at rather than with them, ensuring their sympathies remain with Michou.
There are nevertheless two particular moments in the film where the general comedy is briefly sidelined as events take a more dramatic and menacing turn. The first occurs when Michou reluctantly assists Georges (p.106) and friends in the garden as they slaughter a pig. As Michou helps hold the animal steady, a medium shot emphasises his trepidation before the camera quickly cuts to a low-angle close-up of army veteran Duval, dressed in khaki military cap, sinking his blade into the pig's stomach with a moan of pleasure. In a manner more worthy of the horror genre rather than melodrama, his incision immediately sprays Michou with blood, causing him to recoil in disgust and run away to vomit. He heads inside to seek comfort from Gisèle, telling her that he felt unwell after Duval said he would ‘enterrer les Arabes dans la peau du cochon’.29 She wipes his face and reassures him before scolding the men outside for upsetting Michou. Even if Georges and others are supposedly still oblivious at this stage to Michou's real origins and faith, viewers may still find this sequence rather shocking (if not downright offensive) in its gratuitous and gruesome linking of Muslims with an animal considered unclean according to Islamic dietary rules.30 The scene nevertheless provides an intriguing parallel with the recurring flashbacks used in the following film we shall discuss, Michael Haneke's Caché, where the sight of a child covered in an animal's blood meets with a very different reaction from his foster-parents.
A second encounter between Michou and Georges's army veteran friends also temporarily disrupts the film's comic tone, but this time neither Georges nor Gisèle can come immediately to Michou's rescue. After meeting Abdel one night before he secretly leaves to find their father in Paris, Michou inadvertently witnesses a group of army veterans daubing a pro-OAS slogan in white paint on a village wall. Angered by his presence, they chase and capture him, providing Didier with the opportunity to confirm his suspicions with regard to Michou's real origins. He promptly pulls down Michou's trousers and they rejoice upon discovering that Michou is circumcised, presumably proof for them that he is Muslim. Ignoring Michou's distress, Didier then decides to teach him a lesson by painting his buttocks white. If, once more, Michou is symbolically whitened, the aim here is more to accentuate his anatomical difference, which for them makes Michou irredeemably other, rather than to engineer his assimilation.
Disturbing though these incidents may be, they remain exceptions within a film where, in sharp contrast to Cartouches gauloises, references to the Algerian War often generate humour, usually at the expense of the ragtag bunch of bumbling veterans. This is signalled early on when Georges first introduces Michou to them and pokes fun at the taciturnity of Duval – whose silence since returning from a hunt for fellagha during (p.107) the war at this point remained unbroken – and later when the misspelling of the group's graffiti ‘OAS vincra [sic]’ is emphasised.31 Wider references to the conflict are generally limited to the incorporation of television and radio broadcasts by De Gaulle about the war: an opportunity for the film, unlike Cartouches gauloises, to explore how the conflict in Algeria impinged upon life in rural provincial metropolitan France. Beyond briefly showing veterans watching or listening to such broadcasts, however, this remains largely unexplored, save for the sequence in which Georges delivers a letter to local farmer Robert announcing the death of his son in Philippeville, and his funeral is subsequently held. The ceremony provides an occasion for Didier to propose conducting a local ratonnade in response, which Georges greets with strong disapproval.32
Later, when Georges is finally reunited with Gisèle and Michou, and his rupture with the pro-OAS veterans is complete, the film flashes forward two years later as the war finally draws to a close. Viewers see Michou react with joy when Georges and Gisèle tell him they have applied to adopt him, the fact that his hair has now returned to its natural colour supposedly signalling that Gisèle no longer feels compelled to disguise Michou's ethnicity. Their happiness together proves shortlived. The following scene shows Akli, having been alerted by the authorities of their intention to adopt his son, return to reclaim Messaoud. Despite his protestations, Michou must therefore leave his surrogate parents behind to rejoin his biological family.
A final flashforward nevertheless allows Michou to be reunited with Georges when he grants Michou his parting wish to visit the sea together. A closing slow-motion scene of Michou and Georges alone frolicking by the water's edge might recall François Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups (1959), released the year before the period when Michou d'Auber's beginning is set.33 Although Truffaut's final freeze frame and bleak ending conveyed a rather different message about male childhood experience, the knowledge that Michou's mother had died in childbirth during the intervening period, and the absence here of his former foster-mother Gisèle, permit the scene to be interpreted similarly as a symbolic search for his missing mother, mer connoting its homonym mère (Holmes and Ingram 1998: 118). However, whereas Truffaut emphasises Antoine's solitude, Gilou's reuniting of Georges with Michou symbolically fulfils his adoption of him, even if ultimately this never occurs legally.
The happy ending to Michou d'Auber forms a fitting finale to a popular comedy whose dominant mode – notwithstanding the vocal (p.108) racism and xenophobia of village locals – is nostalgia, as inferred by the succession of black-and-white wartime vernacular photographs shown during the sepia-tinged opening credits. Some of the pleasures of the film for French audiences may indeed derive from period details of 1960s' French provincial life, and in particular the music that bookends it: Dalida's ‘Bambino’ (1956) at the start and Enrico Macias's ‘L'Oriental’ (1962) at the end. Both are apt choices. Apart from anticipating Gisèle's attempt to dissimulate Michou's origins and then accepting them (Dalida sings of ‘tes cheveux si blonds’ and Macias describes himself as ‘le brun’), the transition from the blond-haired Italian ‘bambino’ to the dark-haired Easterner symbolises Georges and Gisèle's eventual recognition of Michou's ethnic difference. Moreover, the inclusion of two singers whose appeal famously extends across both sides of the Mediterranean facilitates the film's ultimate message of the need for cross-ethnic harmony as the war draws to a close.
The nostalgic mood becomes even more understandable before the final sequence when viewers realise that, however incredible the preceding plot may have seemed, a true story inspired it. A voiceover from the real-life Michou and the film's closing intertitles affirm that Michou d'Auber was based upon the childhood experiences of its co-scriptwriter, the actor Messaoud Hattou, who had previously starred in Gilou's Raï (1995) and Merzak Allouache's Bab el-Oued City (1994) and Salut cousin! (1996).34 The script of Michou d'Auber, however, moves Hattou's story back from 1964 to coincide with the final years of the war, a decision Gilou hoped would establish ‘un parallèle entre la montée dramaturgique de l'indépendance de l'Algérie et la montée dramaturgique de l'histoire de ce gamin, le mensonge de Gisèle devenant une métaphore de la fin de la guerre d'Algérie’.35 Although arguably a rather odd metaphor, it suggests Gilou saw Gisèle's need to deny and conceal Michou's origins as mirroring France's reluctance to recognise Algeria's ‘difference’ from France and consequently to cede it independence.
In addition, and in a manner not dissimilar to Cartouches gauloises, it implies that the local events seen on screen within the Berry region can index national ones within the métropole and beyond. Gilou's imbrication of Michou's story with events from the war alludes to how the conflict inflected daily provincial life in France, but, in contrast to Cartouches gauloises, relegates it to the background in favour of Michou's relationship with his foster-parents. Focusing on Michou's story provides a device to investigate wartime attitudes towards ethnic and religious difference within provincial metropolitan France, with (p.109) people of Algerian origin (the only ethnic minorities who feature in the film), clearly positioned as the Other, regardless of whether or not they are born in France like Michou.
The sudden reappearance of Akli to reclaim Michou therefore heralds a return to order for the village's ethnic homogeneity; but the happy ending permitting the reunion of Michou with Georges, however brief, implies that cross-ethnic harmony following Algerian independence is possible in metropolitan France (though the fact that it takes place well away from Michou's erstwhile host village may well be telling). Whether all people of Algerian origin, regardless of age, might be so embraced following the end of the war is not explored, and so the extent to which young Michou might prove more the exception than the rule remains a moot point.36
Michou and Georges both end the film laughing, and despite the wartime setting, Gilou indeed wrings much humour from the plot. This is certainly helped by the provincial rural setting where, despite the regular reminders that the conflict is ongoing, the Algerian War generally remains distant, hence the brevity of the funeral scene and silence on its emotional toll locally. Had the latter been probed more vigorously, the tone may have become more sombre and the comedy consequently incited less laughter, perhaps too much of a deviation from the film's genre for Gilou to risk. Ultimately, as long as the OAS sympathisers generally appear more buffoonish than threatening, and the grave impact of the war for both individuals and nations is at best glossed over, the conflict can be played for laughs.
The Camera Always Lies? Replaying the Past in Caché
We turn now to a film whose genre, plot and setting form a stark contrast to both Cartouches gauloises and Michou d'Auber. Michael Haneke's bleak and enigmatic Caché (2005) encourages viewers to ponder questions of postcolonial guilt and responsibility in metropolitan France four decades following the end of the war (Fig. 7). Awarded several prizes at Cannes and garnering widespread acclaim, the film was released nationally in France in October 2005. Of the three films discussed here, not only did it receive the most media coverage in France, but it has also attracted the greatest critical attention globally out of all the recent French films set during the Algerian War. It also met with considerable success at the international box office, and the number (p.110)
It might seem at first sight that Haneke's sophisticated exploration of (post)colonial memory and guilt has little in common with the first two films discussed here. Unlike them, it sets only a few fleeting scenes during the wartime era, with almost all of the action taking place within present-day Paris. Furthermore, the theme of (male) childhood is less immediately apparent, not least because the lead characters are adults rather than children. However, as Caché unfolds, Haneke establishes important parallels between their childhoods and young male descendants in the present day; and it becomes increasingly clear that a relationship between two children during the war, its premature end, and its continuing consequences within the present day play a decisive role in the events portrayed on (and off) screen.
The film famously opens with an apparently banal and unremarkable sight in Paris's thirteenth arrondissement: a static establishing shot of a residential street in a prolonged take lasting in excess of two minutes. The ocular overtones of the street's name, Rue des Iris, provide an immediate wink to viewers of the importance of seeing within the film even if, despite the length of the take, nothing worth watching appears to happen. However, when tracking marks suddenly appear on screen and voices are heard off it, viewers realise that rather than being real-time action shot outside, the image emanates from a videotape that (p.111) married couple Georges, a literary talk show television host (played by Daniel Auteuil), and book publisher Anne (played by Juliette Binoche) are scrutinising on their television screen inside at home. The images were filmed outside their property but they seem baffled as to why it is being filmed and by whom. This is the first of several such videotapes they are sent, the only clue as to their provenance being the child-like drawings that accompany later copies, one appearing to show a child with blood streaming from its mouth and another a cockerel. The unease induced by these unsolicited items is further heightened by the anonymous telephone calls the couple also subsequently receive. Their anxiety peaks when their son Pierrot fails to return home one night and they fear he may have been abducted by the videotapes' sender.
Georges initially insists to Anne that he has no idea whom their sender might be, but viewers later see him travel to Romainville on the northeastern periphery of Paris to confront Majid, a man of Algerian origin he knew as a child. Majid denies any involvement in the making of the tapes, and maintains his innocence despite the fact that one recording films a journey to his very flat. Suspicion later falls on Majid's young son, but he also asserts his innocence. As Georges and Anne's unease mounts, Georges seems convinced that Majid is waging a campaign of harassment against them but it is only after Majid suddenly commits suicide in front of Georges that he finally feels compelled to explain to Anne how they are linked by a pivotal event during the Algerian War.
When they were both children, Majid's parents worked on Georges's parents' estate; but when Majid's parents never returned from the 17 October 1961 march in Paris, Georges's parents, believing they had been killed, decided to adopt the twelve-year-old orphan. Six-year-old Georges, however, resented Majid's presence and in a bid to contrive his removal told his parents that Majid had been coughing up blood. When this lie failed to convince them, Georges changed tactic. He informed Majid that his father wanted him to behead their cockerel. Once Majid had duly obliged, Georges told his parents that Majid had sought to frighten him by doing so. Apparently as a consequence of these lies, Majid was sent away to an orphanage. The very brief and enigmatic interluding scenes featuring young children that have previously punctuated the film now become clearer: they relate to Majid and Georges's mutual childhood past and appear to derive from the latter's perspective.
Following Majid's death, his son surprises Georges at work. Expressing little remorse for Majid's suicide, Georges steadfastly refuses to accept (p.112) any responsibility for his actions as a child and their ramifications on Majid's life. Majid's son, for his part, insists that neither he nor his father was responsible for the videotapes and drawings sent. The penultimate scene then returns to the moment when Majid was forcibly removed from Georges's family home, and the film ends with a prolonged take and static shot outside the entrance of Pierrot's school.
The enigma of the opening scene, coupled with that of the closing one, may invite a reading of Caché as a puzzle, and lead viewers to wonder what exactly is happening and, indeed, hidden. In comparison to Cartouches gauloises and Michou d'Auber, viewers are therefore made much more active from the start in a film that seems part-mystery, part-drama and part-thriller. Viewers familiar with Haneke's previous work, where the ontology of images is habitually undermined, would undoubtedly already be on their guard, and here too all is not quite as it seems. For, as Ezra and Sillars (2007a: 211–12) argue, although the film is ‘certainly puzzling in many respects, it resists attempts to read it as a puzzle to be decoded […] Not only do we not learn “whodunnit”, but the film reveals this question to be beside the point’.
Nevertheless this did not stop some viewers from assuming that the filming of the videotape footage remained a mystery to be solved, and criticising flaws in the plot's internal logic. Grossvogel (2007: 41) describes how some bemoaned Haneke's ‘technical errors due to carelessness. They pointed out, for example, that in the second tape (night shot) car headlights project the shadow of the camera onto a foregrounded tree. Worse yet, that shadow is seen again after Georges rewinds the tape for another examination’. Furthermore, as Wheatley (2006: 35) observed, ‘the vast majority of the taped scenes are shot from seemingly “impossible” angles: filmed from outside walls where bookcases stand, or from a position too high for a handycam operator unless they were standing very conspicuously on the roof of a car’. For the footage in such scenes to be recorded, but the camera never seen, is therefore technically impossible; and conveniently enough, initial speculation by Georges on how the recordings were made is conspicuously brief (Penney 2011: 83). His focus instead remains on figuring out their provenance, thereby allowing Haneke to discourage viewers from pondering how the images are created, and to consider instead the effects they have on Georges. Why the tapes are being made and sent, more than how, is the question that predominates in Georges's mind and one that undoubtedly many viewers mused too.37
As with the impossibility of the tapes' production, viewers still keen (p.113) to detect the ‘who’ in this supposed whodunnit must jettison rational explanation and, arguably, return to the opening sequence for clues. An answer to the enigma is supplied there by the very first two words spoken in the film. As they scrutinise the videotape footage together for the first time, Georges asks Anne ‘alors?’, to which she replies succinctly, with a word that recurs throughout the film, ‘rien’ (‘nothing’). Anne's comment refers to how little she can glean from studying the images; but, given that the tapes' production cannot logically be explained, it might be better interpreted as a comment on what can be found where the camera should be physically: nothing. As Burris (2011: 153) argues, ‘no one is sending Georges the tapes because they are nothing more than visual manifestations of his paranoid self-surveillance […] the surveillance videos represent the internal economy of his self-alienation’. The sending of the videotapes and drawings ultimately serve as a plot device to probe Georges's troubled state of mind; uncover his hidden history with Majid; and form a metaphor for Franco-Algerian postcolonial relations. Indeed, even if Haneke himself has argued that the film's themes are moral rather than narrowly national in scope (Tinazzi 2005), its setting within present-day Paris and reference to 17 October 1961 clearly position the Algerian War as a spectre that still haunts France. The hidden event of Georges's childhood acts as a metaphor for the relative silence that surrounded the massacre in which Majid's parents were presumably killed, and for the position of the Algerian War within French public memory as a whole.38
Haneke's choice to explain the disappearance of Majid's parents via 17 October 1961 certainly reflects the increasing awareness of the event and its growing visibility since its fortieth anniversary, as we discussed in Chapter 3. Whilst this helps anchor Georges and Majid's childhood in the war, the fact that its mention only occurs once and rather cursorily means that the historical significance of the event itself is not evoked in detail.39 Instead, it performs a totemic function, serving as an emblem for the hidden moments of colonial history that individuals and nation states often prefer to forget; the painful process involved once they are belatedly acknowledged; and the difficult and searching questions they pose about guilt and responsibility.
However, the positioning of Georges simultaneously as the main character through whom this past is seen, and the main point of identification for viewers, presents them with a quandary. Leaving aside his rather dislikeable character, it becomes clear as the film progresses that the curious interludes depicting events four decades earlier are (p.114) less flashbacks that yield insight into the wartime era than ‘memory-images resurfacing in Georges's consciousness and dreams’ (Saxton 2007: 9). Moreover, as his lies, deceit and denial become more apparent, Georges's reliability as witness is thrown into doubt and the credibility of these analepses becomes increasingly compromised.40
The main casualty of his selective memory is, of course, Majid. With Georges as the film's narrator of the past, viewers never see wartime events from Majid's point of view, and the trauma Georges's childhood actions inflicted on him remains almost unheard.41 This makes his last act of free will all the more important and shocking. Just as Georges's childhood lie played upon cultural assumptions in the French cultural imaginary about the belligerence of Algerian men (Macey 1998), so too Majid resorts to a knife. But, rather than reassert that particular stereotype, the slashing of his throat closes a narrative arc that began when he first wielded a blade to kill the cockerel, the scene of which this automatically recalls, and gives him on the point of death an agency which Georges's childhood lies so cruelly deprived him of in life. The fact that he chooses in his final words to reassert calmly his innocence with regard to any involvement in the videotapes and drawings only further compounds his victimhood.
Georges is therefore unwittingly invited to a live spectacle of violence that his television bosses might blanche at broadcasting and that – unlike the rolling television news coverage of international conflict which plays out in the background at his home – is unmediated by screens and not operated by remote control. Tellingly, however, Haneke spares viewers the macabre sight of Georges negotiating his departure from a room whose sole exit is blocked by Majid's lifeless body, a final means by which Majid forces Georges to acknowledge, albeit posthumously, his existence. Rather than show a man whose career and life is structured according to screens – televisual, psychological and emotional – engage haptically with a dying man, Haneke's prolonged take instead emphasises Georges's self-patrolled distance from Majid: his failure to rush to Majid's immediate aid not only suggesting shock but perhaps callousness too.42 Indeed, it comes as little surprise that rather than call the emergency services, his response is to revert to type: retreating to a multiplex cinema doubtless to seek solace in another world of screens. The fact that one of the films projected there, the latest release by Jean-Jacques Annaud, happens to be entitled Deux frères, suggests that while he may physically flee the past, psychological escape will prove illusory.
(p.115) Surely still absorbing the shock of having witnessed Majid's surprise suicide, viewers are unlikely to need such a pointed reminder from Haneke of their own spectatorship. To be subject as viewers to such a sight – and to subject them to it – raises a range of ethical questions, which Haneke arguably compels his viewers to consider by giving them so little time to look away before Majid's left carotid artery is severed. For Wheatley, ‘part of Haneke's project in Hidden […] is to restore shock-value to the image, a project in which he incontrovertibly succeeds, to judge by the collective gasp that shook the cinema audience at the film's Cannes screening during one key scene of unexpected finality’ (2006: 34).43 Forcing us to witness the suicide, to be ‘présent’ just as Majid so wished Georges to be, automatically implicates us too as viewers in this spectacle, perhaps leading us to ponder what investments we make and desires we derive when consuming such sights on screen. As Saxton (2008: 109) duly observes, ‘ethical meaning in Haneke's films emerges not only in their traumatic confrontations with the other's vulnerability and pain, but also, and perhaps most urgently, in their appeal to us to contemplate our own roles in these close encounters as consumers, observers, witnesses and potential actors’.
The ethics of seeing implied here is, of course, first suggested by the opening sequence's foregrounding of acts of looking. There, Georges and Anne scrutinise the videotapes more for what can be seen than heard; but, given how crucial sound becomes by the film's end, Haneke's film arguably advocates an ethics of hearing too.44 For, as they study the images together, what is not immediately clear is what sound cannot be heard no matter how many times they rewind or fastforward, namely the childhood cries of Majid. Only when the penultimate scene replays the moment when young Majid was wrenched away from his foster-family's home does the uncanny resemblance between the ambient noise recorded outside their Parisian home and the soundtrack presumably played in Georges's mind become apparent (Ezra and Sillars 2007b: 221).45 The shock of involuntarily assisting Majid's suicide finally allows this ‘memory-sound’ to be unlocked in a dream seemingly induced, appropriately enough, by his taking of two tablets (or, in French, cachets, a homonym for the film's title and metaphor of hidden history). Viewers might now recall too how little sound the previous memoryimages contained, making Majid's cries and struggle over four decades earlier in this penultimate scene all the more affecting, and highlighting just how adept Georges has been at muffling those sounds he did not wish to hear.
(p.116) As Macey (1998: 159) argues, ‘sites of memory are also sites of amnesia. They are places where what must be remembered collides with what cannot be remembered’. How fitting, then, that Haneke closes the film on the steps of Pierrot's school as Majid's son approaches the young boy. Although the conversation they share is inaudible, if the scene is read as a prelude to Majid's son apprising Pierrot of his father's actions, it suggests that learning about the past can never solely take place within the classroom (a lesson some politicians in France might do well to heed, given the controversy surrounding the infamous bill passed by députés in the same year of Caché's release that, had it not subsequently been repealed, would have obliged schools to teach pupils about the ‘benefits’ of France's historical presence overseas).46
The enigma of this final scene has provoked various interpretations amongst critics. Some have read the first apparent meeting of Georges and Majid's sons on screen as an optimistic omen that greater crossethnic dialogue may be possible amongst younger generations, and that their shared past and the legacies of the Algerian War can be acknowledged. Others have judged the film's ending as more sinister, pondering whether their meeting instead implies their collusion in sending Georges the drawings and videotapes (Cousins 2007: 225). As the film gives so little away, it is unsurprising that viewers may seize upon the scene as a final chance to glean clues as to how events can be explained and to speculate on what the future may hold for those involved. As the action on screen, in contrast to the preceding scene, appears to be set within the present day and follows Georges retiring to bed in the afternoon, many may assume the scene takes place while Georges sleeps, as Pierrot finishes school for the day.
However, as this final scene, like its predecessor, also comprises a prolonged take and static shot – filmic elements that come to be associated with Georges's mind as the film progresses – it can also be interpreted more bleakly as a projection of Georges's concerns for Pierrot, on whom he fears Majid's son might prey (Burris 2011: 161). Alternatively, it could signal that his paranoia has reached a new paroxysm and that he now suspects that Pierrot and Majid are working in tandem. Considered thus, the meeting of the two sons would not herald a rupture with Georges's destructive fear and behaviour but instead reinforce it, perhaps leaving viewers to fear – within the logic of the film – which containment strategy Georges might feel compelled to adopt in order to staunch the flow of images that now threaten his career and social position. For, as Majid asks Georges, ‘Qu'est-ce qu'on ne ferait pas pour rien perdre?’47
(p.117) In his discussion of Caché, Paul Gilroy (2007b: 235) bemoaned Haneke's film for leaving viewers ‘jolted but with no clear sense of how to act more justly or ethically’. Many viewers may have shared Gilroy's frustration; but the chances of Caché being explicitly didactic were always remote. Haneke seems too wary of the messy realities of postcolonial life to offer a moral or ethical roadmap through his cinema. Although several writers have taken issue with his criticism of the film, Gilroy nevertheless raises several important questions towards the end of his reading:
Are the structures of Georges's own personality, his unhappy household and his divided nation all homologically configured? Are the guilt, denial and repression that operate in each of those spaces in the same essential shape and tempo? Are the same kind of pathological results produced in each of those settings? (Gilroy 2007b: 235)
The rhetorical thrust of Gilroy's argument make his thoughts here clear, signalling his apparent disappointment with both the film's conflation of the actions of an individual child and those of an empire and with its apparently unproblematic link between colonial and postcolonial temporalities.
However, as we have seen, Haneke's use of editing and shot selection complicates any neat equivalence between micro- and macro-levels of history. Such criticism of Caché hinges on perceptions of Georges's exemplarity: while it may be tempting to see him as fulfilling a purely metonymic role, he should perhaps be considered more as metaphorical, a symbol of certain aspects of a wider societal phenomenon, rather than representing it in its totality. Indeed, as Silverman (2007: 248) argues, ‘Haneke's contemporary parable of Franco-Algerian relations may suggest […] that Georges and Anne are not to be read as an allegory of France but only of a certain generation and class of French men and women’.48 Despite their original intention to adopt Majid, this generation would include Majid's fleeting foster-parents, whose apparent readiness to believe their son's lie – along with his mother's distant and rather dispassionate recollection of that time as a ‘mauvais souvenir’ – implies they also belong to ‘an adult system founded on underlying prejudice, violence and racism’ (Mecchia 2007: 134). Furthemore, as Coulthard (2011: 77) argues, ‘What is most significant in Caché is not Georges's past act, but the way he reinscribes and exacerbates that original act through its repetition. He lies, hides and places his own well-being and comfort above others in the same way he did when he was six’.
(p.118) Viewers are therefore encouraged to criticise Georges for not changing his behaviour and continuing to act as he did in childhood. However pathetic Georges's lies and attempts at dissimulation may appear, the film does not seek to hold Georges accountable per se for his childhood lie. Rather, it condemns him for refusing to acknowledge the past and to face up to the consequences of his actions within the present. How one lives with these consequences form the film's ethical drive, and is the key question posed to viewers by Haneke; but by emphasising Georges's remorselessness and lack of repentance, Haneke refuses to advocate an appealing answer. The mea culpa from Georges that might conventionally be expected thus never arrives, and, perhaps, just as the mystery surrounding the videotapes' genesis and the location of the hidden camera cannot logically be solved, Haneke's uncompromising conclusion is that no clear-cut answer can readily be found.
As we argued at the start of this chapter, the prioritising of childhood experience during the Algerian War in these three films marks them out as unusual within the wider canon of French films set during the conflict. What purpose do children therefore serve within these narratives? Despite the significant differences between the films of Charef and Gilou, Ali in Cartouches gauloises and Michou in Michou d'Auber are perhaps not so dissimilar. Both of primary school age, and with a similar happy-go-lucky personality, each finds alternative father figures outside their ethnic group, despite the prevalence of casual racism shown within early 1960s' France and Algeria. However, Charef's sole focus upon Ali means the extent to which his intermediary position makes him the exception rather than the rule remains unclear; and Messaoud's integration in Gilou's film is predicated on his real origins remaining hidden. A clear parallel also exists between the ends of both films, where, as the war closes, absent fathers return to rejoin or reclaim their sons. The original family unit therefore restored, viewers are left to assume that a return to relative normality – coincidentally coinciding with ethnic homogeneity – awaits following Algerian independence.
By providing no such happy ending in Caché, Haneke might appear to signal an epistemic break with the consensual narratives of such films set during the war. In his vision of postcolonial Paris, fatherhood equates more with absence: hence Majid's loss of his father during October 1961 (p.119) is compounded when he is rejected by Georges's father; Majid's son must mourn his father's suicide; Georges's father is presumably already deceased; and the emotional distance between Georges and Pierrot seems set to increase. Moreover, whilst the ambiguity of the final scene allows it to be interpreted as potentially anticipating a more hopeful future for Majid and Georges's sons – and perhaps for cross-ethnic relations more generally within metropolitan France – the distinct possibility that it may be more a paranoid fantasy in Georges's mind offers a bleaker vision of the dominant political culture his character epitomises, which appears unwilling to engage meaningfully with the consequences of French colonial rule (Bancel, Blanchard and Lemaire 2006). Regardless of how the film's ending is read, Haneke's film positions twenty-first-century Paris as an enduring site of postcolonial melancholia (Gilroy 2004).
But why choose children as the main characters or figures in these films? The casting of children within Algerian cinema set during the war is ostensibly understandable. As Pontecorvo's La Bataille d'Alger demonstrated, their presence alongside adults helped present Algerian society as a united front in resistance against colonial forces and their vulnerability may potentially elicit sympathy from viewers. Such children's youth also mirrored Algeria's fledgling independence and signified hope for future generations of Algerians, somewhat less of a concern historically within French cinema.
The ethnicity of Charef and that of Gilou's co-scriptwriter and actor Messaoud Hattou are, of course, not incidental here. The autobiographical narratives that drive Cartouches gauloises and Michou d'Auber allow them both to revisit their past during the war. They also form part of a growing corpus of French-produced and co-produced films made by or starring beurs that explicitly engage with experiences of older generations of people of Algerian origin pre-dating the present era. Despite depicting wartime France and Algeria as places of violence, racism and xenophobia, both Cartouches gauloises and Michou d'Auber form generally affectionate portraits of the real-life figures that inspired the stories shown on screen.
Haneke's inspiration and motivations for Caché were very different.49 With no personal investment in showing an ultimately consensual retrospective account, and by insisting that the film's themes have a wider resonance beyond French borders, he seems less concerned about the sensibilities of French audiences and presents a distinctly unflattering portrait of colonial and postcolonial metropolitan France, where (p.120) the accommodation of ethnic Others presupposes their spatial margin-alisation, and children, through the figure of Georges, are not merely witnesses of violence but also author it: a key difference from Charef and Gilou's portraits of wartime childhood.50 Indeed, the distinctiveness of Haneke's vision, and the fact that his film did not herald a paradigm shift with regard to how the war is envisaged within French cinema, reveal some of the limits of the current Franco-Algerian visual economy. Only time will tell whether the ethics of seeing and remembering advocated by Caché can become more widespread, and quite how unusual Haneke's film must remain.
Despite its differences, by focusing on the lives of two male children during the war, Caché does share one further peculiarity with these two films: namely, almost all the children shown on screen are male. Thus, even if Ali's peer Julie features as a named character in Cartouches gauloises, she is the only significant female child and merely delivers one line. Girls of school age are similarly seldom seen in Michou d'Auber and heard even less frequently. The retelling of Georges and Majid's shared past within Caché also features no female peers and (both seemingly only children) their relationship is ultimately paralleled by their sons, neither of whom appears to have female siblings either. This striking absence of female children within all three films may merely be coincidental, albeit conforming to the traditional association between war, men and masculinity in many societies; but it nevertheless seems indicative of a distinctive trend within the wider canon of films (whether French or Algerian) set during the Algerian War, where women's voices – regardless of social class, ethnicity or nationality – are generally disregarded.51 Muriel's own absence in Resnais's Muriel ou le temps d'un retour (1963) therefore seems premonitory, and the prominence of Marie-Jeanne within Marc's childhood memories of French Algeria in Nicole Garcia's thriller Un balcon sur la mer (2010) all the more distinctive.52 A sustained engagement with female experiences of the conflict therefore remains to be imagined within such films and, as a consequence, the business of war – even amongst children – remains resolutely a male affair.
(1) Emblematic examples of such earlier feature-length films include: Muriel ou le temps d'un retour (Alain Resnais, 1963), Le Petit Soldat (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), Élise ou la vraie vie (Michel Drach, 1970), Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès (René Vautier, 1972) and Les Roseaux sauvages (André Téchiné, 1994). The Algerian War was also evoked more indirectly in several other fiction films set in wartime France, such as Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962) and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964), and in the documentary-style films Chronique d'un été (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1961) and Le Joli Mai (Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme, 1963). For detailed filmographies, see Dine (1994) and Hennebelle, Berrah and Stora (1997).
(2) Though, as we noted in Chapter 2, their film provoked hostile critical (p.196) reaction in Algeria at the time of its release, because it was seen to occlude not only an Algerian perspective on the conflict but the very presence of Algerians in their own country. Nevertheless, it was this film that Le Nouvel Observateur included with its edition of 21–27 October 2010, whose front-page story read, ‘Notre guerre d'Algérie: les témoignages des soldats, des pieds-noirs et des Algériens’.
(3) Contemporary Algerian cinema has shown markedly less interest in the conflict so far, the notable exception being Bouchareb's multinational co-production Hors-la-loi (2010), which was Algeria's entry for best foreign language film at the 2011 Academy Awards. Early post-independence Algerian films tackled the war and its aftermath via the state-driven cinéma moudjahid, comprising films such as Le Vent des Aurès (Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina, 1966) and Les Hors-la-loi (Tewfik Farès, 1969). See Austin (2012).
(5) Furthermore, whereas Michou d'Auber and Cartouches gauloises are both directed by French directors and are solely French productions, Caché is a co-production between France, Austria, Germany and Italy and is directed by the Austrian director Michael Haneke. His film can be seen as French, however, owing to its French majority funding, language, setting and cast, and it was duly nominated in four award categories at the 2006 Césars ceremony (source: <www.unifrance.org>).
(6) A special dossier on Caché was published in Screen 48 (2007): 211–49. Some of the many other articles and books that have analysed Haneke's film include Austin (2007a and 2009), Burris (2011), Grossvogel (2007), Mecchia (2007), Radstone (2010), Rothberg (2009), Saxton (2007), Seshadri (2007) and Silverman (2010).
(7) An important exception here from the wartime era itself is the short documentary film J'ai huit ans (1962), by René Vautier, Yann Le Masson and Olga Baidar-Poliakoff, which explored the effects of the war of independence on Algerian children.
(8) Although the town is unnamed, since the film is inspired by Charef's own experiences growing up in Maghnia, it can be assumed that the action takes place in north-western Algeria near the Moroccan border (Charef 2007).
(9) ‘A poorly-aimed shot’.
(10) ‘Superfluous’; ‘disarms this Gallic ammunition’.
(11) Télérama appears to be the only major publication that recognised these qualities of Cartouches gauloises, describing it as ‘comme un songe’ [‘like a dream’] and linking it with the anti-realist elements evident within Charef's preceding films (Murat 2007).
(12) The recurrent gendering of viewership in the film, which primarily shows male rather than female characters witnessing violence or its aftermath, (p.197) is also striking. This pattern is reasserted when, after accompanying Julie back to her home to learn the fate of her family, it is Ali and Nico who are shown peering down to the garden where her murdered relatives lie, rather than her. Such a trend may lead viewers to wonder why Charef refrains from showing Ali's female peers witnessing such scenes and how the film might be different had he done so.
(13) One scene does stand out, however, precisely because it deviates from this rule and shows a more plausible reaction from children to immediate peril. After Nico chases Ali through an orchard following an argument, the sudden sound of gunshots and machine gunfire prompt them to sprint away together. However, the marriage of the brief tracking shot that follows, showing the child actors simulate fear, and the patently extra-diegetic sound effects, is arguably more likely to evoke incredulity amongst viewers than tension.
(14) ‘Don't forget us, little one: otherwise, we are as good as dead’.
(15) His blindness also recalls Charef's description (2007) of his childhood growing up in Algeria where the pieds-noirs in Maghnia ‘étaient gentils, mais ne nous voyaient pas. […] Le bonheur les a aveuglés, ils avaient trop la belle vie’ [‘were kind but didn't see us. […] Their happy lives blinded them, they lived too comfortably’]: a myopia subtly conveyed in several scenes of Charef's film. This metaphor for pied-noir experience is also evoked literally and figuratively to comic effect in Merzak Allouache's Bab el-Oued City (1994), where viewers see a blind pied-noir women guided around present-day Algiers by her well-meaning nephew. The disjuncture between the daily realities of postcolonial life in the capital viewers see him witness and the idealised vision he presents orally to his aunt, however, indicate that his own powers of sight are selective at best.
(16) In this sense it chimes with the allegorical qualities of Charef's previous feature-length film set in contemporary Algeria, La Fille de Keltoum (2002), whose examination of the implications of adoption for an Algerian child within Western Europe also shares parallels with Michou d'Auber.
(17) The small corpus of films that comprise scenes set during 17 October 1961, such as Vivre au paradis (1999), Nuit noire (2005) and Hors-la-loi (2010), form notable exceptions and make Michou d'Auber all the more distinctive for being set within metropolitan France but almost entirely away from the French colonial capital.
(18) ‘The Communist Party has lost us Algeria’.
(19) ‘FLN out’; ‘Death to Arabs’.
(20) ‘You've been had’.
(21) ‘Doesn't care for Arab names’.
(22) Compare Michou's relative passivity with Mourad Ben Saoud, a Frenchman of Algerian origin played by Kad Merad in L'Italien (2010), whose success at passing as Dino Fabrizzi, an Italian Maserati car salesman in Nice, only becomes threatened when he agrees to observe Ramadan in the place (p.198) of his sick father. Similarly, in Djamel Bensalah's highly unusual film Il était une fois dans l'Oued (2005), discussed further in Chapter 6, Julien Courbey plays Johnny Leclerc, a white blond-haired Frenchman who strives to convince others that he was born an Algerian called Abdelbachir. The fact that both films are also popular comedies suggests that filmmakers continue to see this as a particularly fertile genre for exploring such themes, undoubtedly due to the comic potential of passing.
(23) Indeed, the documentary film Gilou made between La Vérité si je mens! 2 and Michou d'Auber provides a neat link between the themes of Jewish experience in France and childhood wartime secrets. Paroles d'étoiles (2002) focused on the lives of some of the many Jewish children hidden throughout France during the Occupation. Given the resemblances between such stories and Michou d'Auber's plot, such as the need to assume an alien identity and maintain the disguise while living in unfamiliar countryside away from an urban home (Brown 2010), the logic of Gilou's choice to focus on Michou's story following this documentary becomes clearer.
(24) The fact that Michou's simultaneous Frenchness and Algerianness (or, more precisely, perceived Arabness, given that ‘Arabe’ is how Gisèle first refers to him and this is what others accuse him of being) are seen as mutually exclusive functions as a reminder that the era in which the film is set pre-dates beur consciousness within France. Given that the term ‘beur’ is usually associated with those generations that came of age from the late 1970s onwards (Hargreaves 1995: 105), Michou seems more a proto-beur.
(25) ‘Now I can say without shame that I'm an Arab and a Jew as well […] Don't count on me any longer: from today, you're no friends of mine’.
(26) ‘Even if you told me you were an Arab […] I wouldn't be bothered’.
(27) ‘We're all the same and all different. […] Whether we are from here or elsewhere, we are all equal’.
(28) ‘All the wogs are thieves, that's why they get their hands cut off’.
(29) ‘Bury the Arabs in the skin of a pig’.
(30) An earlier scene where Michou is coerced by Georges into eating pork at dinner similarly ended with Michou vomiting, although there Gisèle had provided an alternative for Michou and tried to explain away to Georges why he was not eating the same meal. In Gilou's previous films, the various protocols regarding food and mealtime rituals within different ethnic and religious communities generally generated humour rather than drama. The relative lack of comedy here suggests that Gilou thought better than to ridicule Michou's religious dietary requirements, even if Duval's comments and the brief incorporation of horror aesthetics risk undermining this.
(31) ‘The OAS will win’.
(32) A potential allusion is also made to the events of 17 October 1961, when Jacques tells Gisèle about how recent demonstrations in Paris by Algerians have been violently suppressed and he expresses concern for Michou's father. The (p.199) brevity of this reference nevertheless prohibits any further exploration of such events within the colonial capital during the war.
(33) Childhood was also a privileged theme within Truffaut's cinema (Lebeau 2008: 73); and as will become clear, Gilou's film, like Truffaut's (Gillain 2000: 142), was also autobiographically inspired.
(35) ‘A parallel between the rising drama of Algerian independence and that of this young boy's story, Gisèle's lie becoming a metaphor for the end of the Algerian War’. As quoted in ‘Michou’, France-Soir, 28 February 2007.
(36) Contrast this with the ways in which earlier films set during the war and its aftermath, such as Michel Drach's Élise ou la vraie vie (1970) and Yves Boisset's Dupont Lajoie (1975), pictured the sexuality and agency of male adults of Maghrebi origin as threats to the social order for France's ethnic majority. As we discuss further below, Haneke's Caché arguably also plays upon this association within present-day France via Georges's reactions to Majid's son.
(37) This mystery may also explain the film's commercial success and resonance amongst critics. Haneke himself has argued that ‘si j'avais résolu l'énigme, le film aurait été vite oublié’ (Tinazzi 2005). [‘If I had solved the enigma, the film would have been quickly forgotten’.]
(38) In his interview with Tinazzi (2005) about the film, Haneke asserted that ‘il ne s'agit pas de donner des leçons aux Français. Mon film parle d'un thème moral et non national, il s'agit de la culpabilité en général, des “taches noires” qui se logent dans la conscience des individus comme dans celle des collectivités’. [‘It's not about teaching the French a lesson. My film highlights a moral rather than a national theme, that of guilt in general, those “black marks” which stain the conscience of individuals and of people collectively’.] As Cousins (2007: 225) points out, however, foreign audiences may well view the ‘colonial guilt on display’ as an exclusively French matter. Indeed, he contends that ‘viewers in the dwindling British empire are not encouraged to see their national guilt in Georges's distress, just his and his wife's social situation’ (2007: 225), a reading that would view the film as overly parochial in its focus on the ways in which the micro-history of Georges and Majid's lives resonates with wider Franco-Algerian history.
(39) The nocturnal scene showing Majid and his son sitting silently under arrest in a police van may nonetheless recall some of the main iconography of 17 October 1961 discussed in Chapter 3; and, in the context of the wider continuum established between colonial and postcolonial Franco-Algerian relations within the film, the ease with which Georges engineers their arrest forms a trenchant comment on how little power relations have changed in the intervening period.
(40) Given Haneke's famously minute control as auteur, Anne's mention (p.200) that a coming weekend marks the Assumption – formerly also know as the Analepsis – is arguably not incidental. For Haneke to choose this as the sole reference to religion within a film where the world on screen appears so distinctly uncelestial is redolent of the black humour that characterized much of his previous work.
(41) Though, as Austin (2007a: 535) points out, the child-like drawings that accompany the videotapes voice Majid's trauma in a way that he himself does not or cannot verbally: the tears he sheds once Georges departs from his first visit to his flat therefore speak volumes about the pain their childhood rupture caused him. As with the videotapes, however, neither the age nor the identity of their maker or sender is ever confirmed.
(42) Even if Majid's death was swift, this scene's emphasis upon his inaction means Georges could theoretically risk the charge of ‘non-assistance à personne en danger’ (Article 223–6 of the code pénal). However, Georges tells Majid's son that police confirmed his version of events, presumably therefore not seeing any need to press charges. Whether this is due more to the futility of any intervention or the combination of Georges's greater social capital and Majid's Algerian heritage remains unclear.
(43) Compare this with the successive images of violence to which viewers are subjected in Cartouches gauloises that, coupled with the incredulity and bathos frequently generated, serve more to anaesthetise viewers. Caché arguably provides more shock value from two brief cuts to the neck: the cockerel's and Majid's.
(44) Given the care and attention paid to audio within the film, it comes as little surprise to learn that this aspect of the mixing is one Haneke particularly relishes. Quoted in Andrew (2009: 17), he revealed that: ‘I always love working on the sound. When you're editing the footage, your choice is limited to the shots you did, so the possibilities are also limited. But with sound, you can improve things in all sorts of ways: you can change the tone, even the actual words used, and of course all the other sounds’.
(45) Given the concatenation of the past and present within Haneke's film, this scene might also be read as an oblique commentary on the French state's continuing policy of forced expulsion of illegal immigrants. Silverman (2010: 60) has also explored other ways in which this sequence shot can be read as a palimpsest of cultural and historical antecedents.
(46) On the now infamous law of 23 February 2005 passed by the French National Assembly, see among others Bancel (2009) and Le Cour Grandmaison (2006). Both the debate provoked by the law and its eventual rejection by France's Conseil constitutionnel (Constitutional Council) in February 2006 affirmed the principle that the French state should not stipulate which versions of history inform school curricula. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the aspects of Western European history Haneke explores would have featured in French textbooks had the bill become law.
(47) ‘What wouldn't one do not to lose anything?’.
(48) Moreover, Haneke's tradition of using the same names for his main characters – Georges and Anne in Code inconnu (2000) and Le Temps du loup (2003), Georg and Anna in Der siebente Kontinent (1989) and Funny Games (1997) – might also be interpreted as encouraging viewers not to see characters exclusively as unique individuals but instead as emblematic ciphers within his wider critique of contemporary white Western European middle-class societies.
(49) Haneke (quoted in Tinazzi 2005) identified a documentary programme screened on Arte about 17 October 1961 as his inspiration for its inclusion in the film, presumably the aforementioned Drowning by Bullets/Une journée portée disparue (Brooks and Hayling 1992).
(50) This forms another link with several of Haneke's previous films, including Benny's Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997), where children and young adults were also shown as perpetrators of violence. It also anticipates Das weiβe Band in this regard (2009).
(51) Even if three women take centre stage in La Bataille d'Alger during its famous bombing sequence, women's experience is sidelined within the film as a whole, arguably a reflection of the wider marginalisation of women within cinéma moudjahid (Austin 2012) and the silencing of women's voices generally within post-independence Algerian society (Khanna 2008: 4). This pattern recurs across the Mediterranean, with the rare exception of Rachida Krim's Sous les pieds des femmes (1997), which used flashbacks to reveal an Algerian woman's involvement with the FLN during the war.
(52) Like Julie in Cartouches gauloises, Marie-Jeanne is nevertheless pied-noir: a reminder of the comparative invisibility of Algerian girls and young Algerian women in the wider canon of films set during this era, which only further emphasises men's prominence, regardless of ethnic origin, on screen.