I wish I had more to debate with you about CACHÉ, Brandon. But your post is just so eminently reasonable that I'm struggling to pick it apart. I think you still resort too readily to ad hominem attacks against Haneke whenever discussing his work, but I understand where this is coming from. I know you hate his smug guts, and I can't necessarily say that I blame you. As a man, he really is one of the most sanctimonious, self-important pricks in world cinema. He holds everyone and everything to an impossible standard that he somehow displaces from himself. He's also guilty of one of my least favorite traits in an artist (apart from the lack of empathy for animals) by explicitly stating what his films are supposed to be about instead of letting the artwork speak for itself. So, believe me, I more than understand where your inveterate hatred for this guy comes from.
But I do believe that, as a technical and intellectual filmmaker, he honestly is one of the best we have today. I agree with you that he almost invariably seems to be a few heavy-handed moralizing scenes away from a truly rich masterpiece. I too would love for him to make a straight thriller without sermonizing someday (I think he gets the closest to achieving true ambiguity in THE WHITE RIBBON), but I'm not sure that would ever accord with with his deliberate, uber-confrontational style. He wants to shake his privileged viewers out of their complacency quite possibly to his own detriment. You're very right - he lambasts so much of what is vile between humans yet is incontrovertibly guilty of subjecting his audience to his own vile whims. He doesn't understand the height of his own privilege.
With that all being said, Brandon, in your last paragraph you touch upon exactly why I still love CACHÉ despite the overwhelming evidence that Michael Haneke is sadistic creep. You ask: "should I commend the filmmaking first even if it’s smothered in a
message that feels as though it comes from a self loathing contrite
place?" I would never tell you to answer yes to this question because you are obviously free to choose your response to what Haneke has laid before you. All I can say is that I personally answer yes to this question. I commend, hell laud, CACHÉ as a technically bravura anti-thriller about what it means to watch and be seen. I think its one of the most sophisticated looks at voyeurism and its relationship to cinema since REAR WINDOW or BLOW-UP (though obviously not nearly as close to the singular perfection of either of those films). The static shots that bookend the film are some of the most complex that I can recall.
I love how mobile the idea of watching is in these shots. In the opening shot there is a trajectory of viewership and ownership that goes from you watching the image on your screen (giving it meaning, controlling it almost since it is your eye that gives it life), to the realization that the image is being watched and controlled by someone else (Georges and Anne watching it on their TV), to the further realization that that image is watched and controlled even more so by someone else (whoever is sending the tapes), and the even further realization that the image is ultimately watched and controlled by the filmmaker himself (Haneke). It is the same image but every single viewer and owner of that image gives it a different meaning that is hidden from each other (welcome to cinema itself).
The final shot is similarly complex in how nonchalantly it displaces the eye and its own meaning. We sit, watch, and wonder what we are looking at. We ask: whose point of view is it? Are we watching a recording or an actual image? Where is our eye even supposed to focus? What does it all mean? The fact that Haneke can raise so many questions from what is essential a very aloof, seemingly banal image is a testament to how successfully he lures us in to his mystery and treatise on the act of looking or not. If he is eliciting these questions from us, then he has done his job with precision. And by eliciting these questions he has not only involved us in his mystery but also in the art of dissecting cinema. He makes us question the very meaning and reality of an image, which is the purpose of cinema as an art form and the idea you try to instill in anyone who wants to understand film as an important, singular medium. It's an image that's downright brilliant the more you unpack it, and I feel that way about much of the film from a visual and intellectual standpoint. That's why I love it. I overlook so much of the film's hangups and Haneke's own interloping hand, so that all I can see is the beguiling visual mystery he's delineated for us.
When I watched CACHÉ again I just took everything for what it was or for how it came across to me on the screen. When the political subtext became apparent to me, I thought it added a provocative layer to what I already found was a great enigma of a film. I can understand, Brandon, how it can come across as obvious and self-righteous in the context of Haneke as a person. But for me, when I watch CACHÉ, I try to ask what the film is communicating to me, not what Haneke is. His overbearing personality is not greater than his art despite how hard he may try. Even if he is personally sanctimonious and confrontational, the way he shoots the film belies these traits. The political subtext about France's hidden racism can easily be drawn from Georges hidden relationship to Majid. But everything that generates this connection is shot at a cool distance. There's nothing confrontational about the involvement of the camera at all. For that, despite the knowledge one may have of Haneke's personality, he diffuses his own aggressiveness through a resolutely detached lens. Again, his images are greater and more complex than he is if only for the fact that a cinematic image is not a fixed position but a multiplicity.