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Arthouse future and arthouse past 

You only need to get one gander at the opening credits of Caché (Hidden), Michael Haneke's latest film, to know that the Austrian auteur will not be making things easy for you. Using the tiniest letters, Haneke jams the names of his cast, crew, and financiers into one frame over a street scene that seems incredibly boring... and then it starts to rewind.

What we're watching --- along with Anne (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat) and Georges (Daniel Auteuil, the hardest-working man in France) --- is videotape that has been left on their doorstep by their stalker. Someone has been filming the exterior of the Laurents' Paris home, and while the tape isn't overtly menacing, Anne and Georges are understandably unnerved. You may find yourself feeling the same way, as that opening shot will cause you to question the origins of nearly every subsequent one.

The surprisingly suspenseful Caché watches as Anne and Georges begin to unravel after receiving more surveillance tapes, now wrapped in crude drawings featuring a cheery crimson smear. A video of Georges' childhood home leads him to believe someone from his past may be seeking revenge on him, and Georges' odd reluctance to share his theories with Anne drives a further wedge between them.

The police won't help, so Georges takes matters into his own hands, confronting his suspected stalker in a series of increasingly puzzling exchanges that culminate in a scene that is vintage Haneke. (Note to self: Apologize to neighbors for screaming.)

1997's Funny Games, an unabashedly nasty romp about a family terrorized by a couple of teen sadists, was Haneke's breakout in the international cinema game, and since then he has continued to challenge moviegoers worldwide with films, like 2001's award-winning The Piano Teacher, that defy the conventional notions of entertainment. Haneke, who won Best Director at Cannes for Caché, enlists French film royalty for the main roles here, and both Binoche and Auteuil are dependably dazzling --- especially Binoche, who registers Anne's growing mistrust of her husband all over her painfully expressive face.

Haneke ends Caché with another stagnant shot, but don't think that there isn't anything going on in this busy little scene, and don't let Haneke direct your eyes away from what he really wants you to see. If you're vigilant, all your questions will be answered.

Sorry; did I say "answered"? I meant compounded.

The release of The White Countess marks the end of an era. Throughout a romantic and professional partnership stretching over 40 years producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory arguably defined the term "arthouse film," but Merchant's death last May leaves The White Countess as the final Merchant Ivory production.

To be honest, their output in the 21st century (i.e., 2001's abysmal The Golden Bowl and 2003's Le Divorce) has not achieved the almost impossibly high standards they set for themselves with classics like A Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day. And while the uneven The White Countess is also unable to reach those lofty heights, Merchant Ivory's last film is an appropriately lovely finale to a landmark collaboration.

The original screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro sets the film in 1930s Shanghai, where a family of Russian nobles have fled. Sofia (Natasha Richardson) is the breadwinner, earning her wages consorting with men. Her family despises her for this, but they can't spend her money fast enough.

Sofia comes to the aid of a blind American diplomat named Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) one evening and makes enough of an impression on him that he seeks her out as the centerpiece for his nightclub, The White Countess. Political upheaval forces the two of them to confront unacknowledged feelings as Shanghai begins to fall to the Japanese.

The White Countess's cast is the stuff of dreams. Fiennes, as always, is perfect, and the well-cast Richardson (I'm usually not a big fan of hers) brings the Redgrave family count up to three: Aunt Lynn plays the manipulative Olga, and mother Vanessa also has a small part as the somewhat dotty Sara. But the repressed emotions Merchant Ivory aficionados have come to expect are a little too buried here, with Richardson and Fiennes generating more indifference than heat.

Fortunately, the movie itself is stunning, having been shot by Wong Kar-wai's right-hand man, Christopher Doyle. No one captures Asia quite as beautifully as the Australian cinematographer does, and he helps make Merchant Ivory's flawed swan song a memorable one.

Caché (R), directed by Michael Haneke, opens Friday, February 17, at Little Theatres | The White Countess (PG-13), directed by James Ivory, is playing at Pittsford Cinema.

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