Code Unknown Movie Review
Following a clearly telegraphed prologue in a classroom for the deaf where no one can figure out what a little girl is miming (theme: miscommunication), Haneke details within a single, unbroken shot four characters -- a young man, his brother's girlfriend, a homeless woman, an angry black schoolteacher -- whose paths cross on a busy Paris street corner. The young man, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) tosses a crumpled bag into the lap of the homeless woman (Luminita Gheorghiu), a motiveless crime springing from his own insouciance. The black teacher (Ona Lu Yenke) demands the youth apologize, using physical force to make his point. The police break it up, taking the black man away in handcuffs. Race, class, righteousness, and passive observance collide, and each party involved carries the moral baggage.
A fascinating concept, especially considering that Haneke lets the film unfold in a series of self-contained episodes, many of them drawn out within a single long take. Some are particularly engrossing, such as one where the "brother's girlfriend", Anne (Juliette Binoche), ironing her clothes, hears children's screams through the wall. Unsure how to proceed, she turns off the iron and listens. The tension of proprietary indecision comes through, made unsettling by the hiss of an iron and the low drone of a background television.
Another comes in the form of her photographer boyfriend (Thierry Nieuvic) riding on the subway snapping spy camera photographs of his fellow riders, but this invasion of privacy is juxtaposed with one of Haneke's atypically provocative but ultimately shallow race baiting confrontations where Anne later rides the subway verbally harassed by two Arab teenagers. The questions are obvious ("Would she stand up to them if she wasn't morally paralyzed over the black kid earlier?") and the resolution ultimately unsatisfying -- or is that the message?
But Code Unknown isn't consistent. One of the warmer episodes (the homeless woman is deported, but this actually seems to work out quite well for her as she rekindles a relationship with her Romanian family) is so surface-calm that it's easy to imagine what road pessimistic Haneke will ultimately ride her down. More ridiculous are the scenes with Jean spending time at his father's farm, as they sit eating cold beets not speaking to one another. Visually unpleasant and perhaps condescending, it stretches the notion of father-son displacement into the usual heady meditative quality of foreign films, which sometimes (as here) feels simply oblique and empty.
Anne, a professional actress, has a frightening audition scene where she's seemingly trapped within the video image ("I merely want to watch you die," mutters the impassive narrator.) It's followed up, though, by a stupefying dubbing session where she keeps flubbing a crucial line. "How hard is it to say the words, 'I love you?'" sighs the director -- in case you didn't get the message. A later sequence between Anne and her boyfriend confronting their values in the supermarket, winding through alleyways of cereal boxes, is intricate but dramatically stunted. Careening between affection and loathing, one way of reading it is to admit there's more to this relationship than we could possibly understand -- but given the solemn limitations Haneke himself places on his world it comes off as childish, manipulative, and silly. I love you, I hate you, please kiss me.
It's made apparent because Haneke cares more for the characters and situations as a puzzle, draining out humanism in favor of pseudo-intellectual objectivity. But unlike Antonioni, where landscape takes the place of people, or Bruno Dumont's moody dread-poem L'Humanite, Haneke's approach doesn't yield an emotional response. Still, those heady complications in Code Unknown run deeper than one might assume. Fully prepared to dismiss it as art house psychobabble, Code Unknown stayed with me that night, and for the days to follow. The title is key, as we sift and shuffle the pieces of Haneke's meditation forming our own patterns. Though it's difficult to call the film a success, it's certainly beguiling -- a riddle without an answer that nags and maybe elucidates as we puzzle out how little we know about the film, but also our friends and their individual mysteries. What do they do with themselves all day, and how much of their being do we truly see? Code unknown.
Aka Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages and Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys.