Michael Haneke's simmering thriller ''Caché" begins calmly enough. The credits are typed across a static long shot of a residential Parisian street during the day. We hear a pair of voices off-screen. Then as someone walks by the image is rewound.
It's not Haneke's film we're watching. It's a videotape that Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) have in their VCR. (''Video" is a misnomer since all we see is film.) The tape's been left outside their home, and the camera is about a couple hundred feet from their front door: They're viewing their own house.
Whoever made the tape has a Warholian sense of play, but this is more sinister than an art prank. It's the start of the domestic nightmare Haneke unspools with a master storyteller's talent for suspense.
Georges is the host of a literary chat show, and Anne, who works in publishing, thinks maybe one of his fans sent the tape. But soon a second cassette appears, wrapped in a childish sketch of a boy spewing blood from his mouth like fire. The Laurents' agitated preteen son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), receives a postcard at school of the same drawing. An anonymous caller keeps ringing the house. Then a third tape arrives. This one was shot from inside a car, which drives along a country road until it stops at Georges's childhood home.
Haneke has a deceptively random way with narrative. The scenes don't follow one another in conventional fashion. A sequence of the Laurents sitting down to dinner precedes one of Pierrot at swim practice. Haneke is building enveloping texture. With relish and dread, we're forced, along with the Laurents, to become spectators and detectives: What is going on? I'll never tell. Frankly, the movie's lasting feat is that I may never be able to, anyway.
''Caché" balances between precision and ambiguity. Those who've experienced the piercing disturbances of Haneke's recent work, particularly ''Code Unknown" and the cruelly overlooked apocalypse parable ''Time of the Wolf," know that the provocations here will reach into the political. For a while though, ''Caché" leaves open an intriguing metaphysical contingency: Maybe the tapes are from no one.
But drawing such a conclusion is strictly up to us. Haneke gratifies curiosity without stooping to flatter it, and so his movie is more powerful for the secrets it keeps. As it happens, the director's not the only one holding out on us. At some point, Georges informs Anne that he might know who's behind all this, but refuses to say more. She's appalled: This is trust? He, more or less, responds with an old post-9/11 saw. This is what the terrorists want: to tear us apart.
Haneke lets a dark humor creep into that emotionally charged encounter. The circumstances turn Georges pathetic, desperate, and a little ridiculous. He only seems more so as he tries to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Because Haneke's ideas are so pungent and his craftsmanship so bold, it's easy to overlook how excellent he is with actors. Auteuil's usual haughtiness is humbled and pummeled into a sort of grand depression. And Binoche testily complements his condescension and taciturnity with an increasing lack of comprehension. Maurice Bénichou does the most heartbreaking work in the movie, playing a friend of Georges's. It's a character and a performance I'll have a tough time getting out of my dreams.
More than one critic has offered ''Caché" as a nifty companion piece to Steven Spielberg's ''Munich." The way both films consider personal responsibility makes that true enough. But the recent opus that came to mind while watching Haneke's was David Cronenberg's ''A History of Violence," a movie also about a man, his family, and the vagaries in his past. Cronenberg turned a commentary on the proverbial sins of the father into an action movie. With his cheesy-satirical smokescreens, however, Cronenberg wanted us to laugh with him. Haneke is determined to haunt us. Maybe Georges's ghosts are ours, too.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.