A still from early in the opening sequence in Caché. Click the image to enlarge it. Image (and a brief but meaty discussion of the sequence) found here.
In Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White, there's a longish sequence in which we read some of the heroine Laura's diary entries concerning her growing fear of Sir Percival and her suspicion that he plans to imprison or even kill her and acquire her fortune. As readers, we already like Laura; and as we read these entries, we can't help but feel a growing empathy for her plight. So, when she writes in the final entry of her plan to give Sir Percival the slip, we silently wish her well.
And then, Collins plays a truly terrible trick on his reader (but, from a narratological standpoint, a truly kewl one): The very next thing we read after that final journal entry is Sir Percival's closing of Laura's diary in smug satisfaction! The reader is suddenly cast into an awfully ambiguous position--all this time, it had felt as though Laura had drawn us into her confidence; yet, in the moment of revealing that Sir Percival has just finished reading the diary, we feel as though we've let him read over our shoulder and thus inadvertently betrayed her. Or, worse: during at least part of that time, without our realizing it, we become Sir Percival.
Granted, this sort of thing doesn't happen often in fiction. Still, the fact that it does happen leads me to wonder: Why don't films do this sort of thing more often? Just to be clear: I'm not speaking of films with fractured narrative structures. Those may be disorienting, but what's disorienting is the difficulty in finding the film's narrative ground, its "now," its starting point. Rather, I'm speaking of films that leave deliberately ambiguous their narrative perspective, the point of view from which the story is being told and, implicitly, with whom the audience is to identify. I don't claim to have seen a whole lot of films, so my range of knowledge in this field isn't exactly encyclopedic. But of the ones I have seen, the only film I can think of that does something akin to what happens in Collins' novel is Caché (2005; dir. Michael Haneke; French w/ subtitles). Here's a plot summary, and here's the trailer:
Actually, I'd rather be showing you the opening sequence, because it's in recalling it that I decided to try to write a little about this subject. Caché opens with a static shot of a house in a residential neighborhood, the perspective distant from but on the street and in full view of the house. After a bit, the opening credits begin to appear. There's ambient noise; the occasional car passes; eventually, a man leaves the house and walks toward the viewer, eventually stopping at his car and getting in; otherwise, nothing moves, nor does the camera, for what feels like an interminable length of time--perhaps three or four minutes, an eternity in film. (Is there any more powerful weapon in the director's arsenal than the static shot for making us really watch--and in so doing, build tension?) Then suddenly, some voice-over discussion not of what we're seeing but of the nature of its making; scanning lines appear across the image, and the second portion of the sequence begins: we're in a living room with a man and a woman, Georges and Anne (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), looking at that same static image on their TV; the woman had found the tape, with no note, on their doorstep; their dialogue reveals that the tape's total run-time is two hours; Georges--whom, we realize, is the man approaching the car that we had seen earlier--wonders why he hadn't seen the camera (he should have been able to).
All film by its very nature turns the viewer into someone conducting surveillance; more often than not, though, that feeling rather quickly gets set aside and is replaced with our identification with, if not actual feel sympathy for, the person(s) at the center of the film's narrative. Yet from the outset of Caché, we want to empathize with the couple we've just met (who wouldn't feel unnerved upon having received such a package, especially with no accompanying explanation?); but because of what had transpired prior to the scene in the living room, it's difficult not to feel complicit in their surveillance--indeed, the way the opening sequence is constructed, it is as though that tape is the product of the audience's gaze. The film's later events--the growing encroachment into Georges and Anne's psychic space of whoever it is responsible for the tapes (more are to come) and, later, disturbing drawings--somehow seem to be our fault: we started it, after all . . . whatever "it" is.
I suspect I've just answered my question. The cinema is billed as escape. We want to be anonymous while there, we just want to see what there is to see. We sure as heck don't want to be responsible for what's onscreen. Those rare onscreen moments when a character looks straight into the camera and we have the strong sensation, as in the above scene from Blue Velvet (image found here), that s/he's not talking to another character but to little ol' invisible, anonymous us, out there in our safe, dark room in our comfy chairs, are unnerving enough as it is. To our relief, Caché could have kept knocking down that fourth wall between us and the plight of Georges and Anne, but it doesn't. But what if it had pushed that dynamic further and harder?
It'd be fairly easy to imagine what such a film would look like . . . but would anyone be able to stay through to the end of it?