Review: Code Unknown (2000)

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Cast: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Josef Bierbichler
Director: Michael Haneke
Country: France | Germany | Romania
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


The following review continues Ronan Doyle’s Michael Haneke Director Spotlight.

It is perhaps strange to think that sign language can have dialects. A system of communication designed for those unable to understand the spoken word, it seems even this can be limited by the national and cultural boundaries we have designed to separate ourselves from one another. Even something designed to unite those left behind by other means of contact is steeped in divides and differences that make it all but impossible for those of different backgrounds to effectively understand each other. Opening and closing with importantly metaphorical scenes of deaf children playing charades, Haneke’s fifth feature film, and his first in French, was Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys.

Like the outward rippling from a stone casually tossed into a still lake, the smallest of actions can change the face of our lives and the course of our fate. When Jean, the second son of an aging farmer, inconsiderately dumps the bagged remnants of a pastry into the lap of a beggar, it alters the paths of many more existences than simply these two. From the beggar, Maria, to Jean’s brother Georges and his girlfriend Anna, to Jean himself and his father, to an intervening young man Amadou, Code Unknown explores the consequences of our actions, but also the constructs of our society, and the fundamental contradictions of our species.

Gone is the brass condemnation and focus on brutal violence which characterised much of his Austria-based work…

Code Unknown, not least of all due to Haneke’s shift to a new country, tongue, and cultural context, is the most different side to the director we have yet seen at this point. Gone is the brass condemnation and focus on brutal violence which characterised much of his Austria-based work, the stark finger-pointing of his first decade replaced in this new century with more of the cerebral subtleties which were utilised to some degree in 71 Fragments. That film is the clearest predecessor of this, not only in terms of their shared fragmented form, but also in their discussion of the convergences of different lives. Where 71 Fragments took to the senselessness of human violence and our desensitisation to it, Code Unknown is an exploration of our inability to communicate effectively as a society, and the difficulties that arise between us therefrom.

A mark of his growing prominence as a director of note in European cinema, Code Unknown afforded Haneke the opportunity to work with the recent Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche, whose performance here is one of the film’s strongest facets. As Anna, Binoche’s excellent portrayal springs from the strength of her character arc, her minimal role in the initial incident in no way diminishing its significant effect upon her life thereafter. While ironing clothes one evening, Anna hears the screams of a young girl from somewhere in her building. She mutes the television and, her face concerned, listens until the cries cease. Clearly, something is not right. After a further moment’s pause, she resumes her housework. The causes and effects of what we do and fail to do run throughout Anna’s “journey”. In a fantastic scene typical of his almost inexplicably tense and harrowing quasi-horror style, Haneke turns the tables on Anna, putting her at the mercy of a stranger’s help. Why is it that we ignore the suffering of our fellow man? Are we not as responsible for what becomes of him when we do? This is one of the many questions Code Unknown springs upon us, deliberately leaving each of them wide-open to test our morality and conscience not only as individuals, but as a collective society too.

Editing, as ever for Haneke, plays a vastly important role, all but three of the segments composed in impressive unbroken long shots.

Unanswered questions are one of the most prevalent aspects of Code Unknown’s style, many of its narratives segments cut precisely at the moment such a question is posed, as though suggesting that there are no possible answers to these. Editing, as ever for Haneke, plays a vastly important role, all but three of the segments composed in impressive unbroken long shots. The first of these is an attention-grabbing eight minutes in length, the long tracking along a Parisian street some of Haneke’s most technically accomplished work to date. In line with the incompleteness of the title, the cuts to new scenes join people in mid-conversation, giving only brief and inconclusive glimpses into their lives. Without a full picture, it is difficult to discern the reality of these people, but then, isn’t that the truth of life itself?

The individual stories of Code Unknown are each worthy of comment in their own right, be it the tragic relationship between Jean and his father rendered in beautifully silent scenes, the return home of Marina to Romania following her deportation (her story itself is somewhat weak, but Luminiţa Gheorghiu draws us in with a magnificent performance), or the wonderfully real interaction between Amadou’s father and younger brother. It would be tempting to view Code Unknown as an outspoken critique against racial prejudice in French society, the variety of races represented in the film’s opening event seemingly supporting this view. Yet in a later scene featuring Amadou’s mother discussing the misfortunes of her family, her blaming of almost everything on interactions with whites appears to disavow this reading, Haneke seeming to suggest that dwelling on racial differences is unproductive and will only hold us back. Instead, the wide range of races appears simply a manifestation of the internationality of Haneke’s themes: these are ideas that apply universally; the problems of communication that hamper our lives are shared throughout the world, regardless of social standing or racial background.

All of Code Unknown’s philosophising on the failings of humanity to communicate is not what makes it a great film however; instead, it is three brief scenes which, like the best of Haneke, thrust us right into the film and cause us to ponder our purpose and that of everything we are watching. At one point, the film cuts to a screen test Anna films for a thriller. Off-screen, her director reads the male role in the scene for her benefit. As though the confusion of the dialogue seeming cineliterate and self-conscious in itself were not enough, the director is voiced by Haneke himself. In this scene, is this one character instructing another, “the director” instructing “Anna”, or Haneke instructing Binoche? Here, Haneke not only breaks the fourth wall, he demolishes the entire building, leaving nothing solid beneath us to stand on. The lines between fictions are blurred, and indeed between those and our own reality. Old habits die hard, and even here in his most different film to this point, Haneke can be seen to again dwell on ideas of film and its purposes and possibilities. This is a film that points to the inherent contradictions of our relationships and the follies of our inabilities to understand each other on a human level, yet at the same time Haneke directs our attention to the artifice he has used to express these truths; that this is a fiction through which he is expressing the facts. The lessons Code Unknown teaches are invaluable, but unless we take them out of the film and into our own lives, they are useless.

Though it lacked the acerbic bite of Haneke’s nastier, more directly provocative works, Code Unknown is no less challenging to its audience, engendering an endless stream of questions and leaving us to find the answers, should they even exist. With the benefit of many excellent performances, an assured understanding of the role of editing, and the unmistakeable Haneke style, this is a powerfully resonant piece that echoes beyond the boundaries of its fictional limitations. Code Unknown, like the life it attempts to represent, is a maddening mess of mysteries, meaninglessness, and meandering relationships. The best we can do is to make of it whatever we can; to find a beat to drum along to.

[notification type=”star”]94/100 ~ AMAZING. Though it lack the acerbic bite of Haneke’s nastier, more directly provocative works, Code Unknown is no less challenging to its audience, engendering an endless stream of questions and leaving us to find the answers, should they even exist.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.