REVIEW: DVD Release: Code Unknown

Film: Code Unknown
Release date: 19th November 2001
Certificate: 15
Running time: 112 mins
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Josef Bierbichler, Alexandre Hamidi, Maimouna Hélène Diarra
Genre: Drama
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: France/Germany/Romania

Austrian director Michael Haneke has drawn comparisons with the late, great Stanley Kubrick due to the cold distant manner in which he observes the sometimes cruel nature of human behaviour. In his 2000 thriller Code Unknown, Haneke turns his critical eye upon the cultural and racial differences simmering underneath the urban sprawl of modern Paris, whilst at the same time delivering a fractured narrative which demands the audience’s attention from the opening scene.

When the younger brother of an actress’ boyfriend throws a piece of rubbi
sh into a Kosovan beggar’s lap, a chain of events is set into motion which has drastic implications for all concerned; the affluent actress currently filming a thriller (Binoche), the black voluntary worker who confronts the youth in the street (Yenke), the beggar herself (Gheorghiu), and the actress’s boyfriend, coincidentally returning from a stint photographing the conflict in Kosovo (Neuvic). From this seemingly minor incident, the repercussions ripple outwards, and previously unrevealed connections between these characters begin to emerge.

The beggar is deported back to her country as an illegal immigrant, and the voluntary worker is arrested for affray, while there are problems too for the actress Anne - her relationship with her photographer partner is adversely affected by his problems with his rural dwelling father. Interspersed throughout are dramatic scenes from her new film, further blurring the lines between what is presented to us as reality and what is fictional.

As events seem poised to be resolved, all of a sudden some shocking revelations emerge and shake things up still further…

Michael Haneke’s examination of society’s failure to communicate in the 21st century is bookended by two fascinating and compelling scenes – the initial confrontation which sparks the narrative is presented as a long single take following the action on a typically busy Parisian street, handled effortlessly by the director. The penultimate scene, which features a public harassment of Anne by a youth of Moroccan descent, is both harrowing and spellbinding. Sadly, these scenes serve to highlight what Code Unknown could have been, for the film in-between does not live up to these individual moments.

All the usual features of Haneke’s work are present and correct - the lack of a music score, the stark colour scheme, the liberal use of natural acting - yet the overall event is far below the filmmaking heights that Haneke achieves in other, superior films. Perhaps the fault lies in the narrative structure itself: whereas in films such as Cache and Funny Games the plot is tight and tense, allowing the director’s trademark aggressive style to truly immerse the viewer in the action, in Code Unknown, the plot construction is too disjointed to ever really catch our attention.

All of which make the scenes that do work standout in their individual quality - a scene involving the beggar’s return to her native homeland is understated and quietly affecting, while the snippets we see of Binoche’s fictional thriller are of a quality high enough to make one wish they were watching that film instead (incidentally, the promotional team behind the film deserve derision for the dishonesty they display in using a dramatic still from one of those scenes as the poster for the film, thereby misleading the potential viewer as to the film they are about to see).

Binoche herself provides her usual sterling effort in the lead role, but even a more skilled actor than her (and there are few of those) would struggle with the limited material she is given to work with.

One of Haneke’s favourite themes is social awkwardness taken to an almost unbearable degree, and viewers who share similar tastes will not be disappointed in Code Unknown. We are constantly bombarded with images that we all recognise as times where we, as members of a society, can either stand up and assist, or keep a low profile and hope it goes away. From a middle-aged man breaking down and sobbing in his bathroom, to the aforementioned scene of abuse in a metro car - where a youth actually spits in Binoche’s face – Haneke keeps the same impartial, unflinching eye trained to the dark underbelly of the bourgeoisie, a hallmark that has served him well throughout his career.

Those expecting a neat resolution to the story will, as usual with Haneke’s films, be disappointed with the extremely open-ended finale, which barely qualifies as such. Whereas Cache made the viewer interpret their own ending by providing them with the most sparing of visual references in the last scene, Code Unknown does not even bother with this. Instead, Haneke opts for a multi-vantage point scene, revolving around Binoche’s apartment door, which is rendered ultimately pointless due to the overly oblique and frankly uninteresting material that the director decides to wrap up the narrative with.

Code Unknown is not wholly without redeeming features. Gheorghiu gives a touching performance as the beggar who is considerably more than that in her homeland, and the scenes set in Kosovo bristle with authenticity. Similarly, the individual scenes that follow the family of the voluntary worker quickly and effectively depict the everyday trials and tribulations that the ethnic minority underclass must face in modern France. Again, these scenes contribute to the overall sense of frustration, as they demonstrate what a fantastic and intellectually stimulating experience this could have been, rather than the hollow movie we are left with.

Code Unknown stands out as a rare misstep in Michael Haneke’s glittering Euro-intellectual career. Trapped somewhere in the mishmash of the social commentary and fractured thriller that was very much in vogue at the start of the 21st century - with films such as amores perros and Traffic also hitting cinemas - is a biting reflection of social mores and cultural misunderstanding. However, it was not until Cache, five years later, that Haneke finally made this film. Unfortunately Code Unknown suffers badly from sharing such similar features and themes, not to mention the same lead actress, for it cannot avoid seeming like merely a dry run for what was one of the best films of the decade. 

No comments:

Post a Comment