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"Code Inconnu" is an utterly original, even revolutionary piece from
the Austrian director who continually refuses to compromise and pander
to an audience.
Many of the reviews on this site focus on the coherence of the film and suggest that the film lacks meaning or narrative, or even that the film is a failure because it is not easily comprehended. This is untrue and deeply unfair.
"Code Inconnu" is not an immediate film. Indeed it may take several viewings to really come to grips with the meaning of the film - certainly there is not a single definitive meaning. For many film viewers when the basic linear narrative is remote. Again this adds to the view that the meaning of this obscured film is pointless. However this is more a reflection of the viewer and of audience expectation than of this film.
In a series of free standing vignettes Haneke has fashioned a moral conundrum without an answer. Much like in life itself. But rather than searching for meaning or answers Haneke is daring us to confront the questions themselves. The themes here are obviously about racism and reality, but also conscience and the consequence of our actions. By linking his separate characters initially Haneke points out that we are tenuously linked to people by uncontrollable events. By setting his film in Parisian streets, Hanekes film becomes recognizable of all our lives.
The central performance from Binoche is equally ambiguous, again this adds to the strength of the piece, but also the difficulty inherent in it.
The best way to view this film is as a series of questions which have no easy answer. The code is indeed unknown. By viewing each episode as a single moral conundrum the film takes on a very interesting and worthwhile dimension.
Paris, in the year 2000. A thoughtless gesture (a scrap of paper thrown
in the hands of a beggar) causes a general altercation. As a matter of
fact, the Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke goes from this incident to
relate bits of various characters' lives. There's among others, Anne
(Juliette Binoche), an actress who travels from movie to movie. Her
husband, Georges a war photographer whose photos express pain and
suffering from the countries he visited. Jean who fled from his
father's farm in the north of France to come to Paris. Amadou who works
in an institute for deaf and dumb children and Maria, a Romanian woman
who has trouble to make ends meet by begging. Like "71 Bits" (1994),
Haneke's movie is a patchwork of sequences shot in real time and
interrupted with short black screens to have a break and in the same
time to think about the sequence shot we have just seen.
Shortly before the incident when Jean wants to go to Anne's flat, the latter tells him the code of her flat: "if you want to enter my flat, the code of my building is B4718". I'm not sure whether it's the right code but the building could epitomize a metaphor of a man's life. Every man's life is similar to a building kept generally by a code. The title of the film is rather easy to understand. The famous "unknown code" is a blocked access to any character's real life. This code is unknown for the strangers who surround him or her and as a consequence they don't known anything of his or her real life. It's this situation that is represented in Haneke's movie.
On the surface, "Unknown Code" seems more breathable than Haneke's previous works and looks like a "Magnolia" (1999) à la Francaise. Michael Haneke juxtaposes different characters'different lives belonging to different social classes. They have apparently nothing in common except maybe that their own lives are kept by this unknown code for the others. However, they are affected by terrible sorrows which paralyze the Western society without this latter realizes it. In this Haneke's opus, there's neither the uppercut of "Benny's video" (1992), nor the icy violence of "Funny Games" (1997) but through an accurate study of these different journeys, a quiet, impressive of rigor making, the director offers a disillusioned and black vision of this society. So, he remains faithful to his favorite topics: the difficulty of communication (Amadou who tries to explain in a clumsy way his anger in front of Jean's unconsidered gesture). The way in which violence has become a feature of everyday life in a society which has become insensible to it (we can remember perfectly the sequence shot when Anne irons, she can hear shrill cries near her. She hesitates then resumes to iron). The omnipresence of racism and the insurmountable barrier of social classes (the scene in the tube is a grievous example). They are serious topics that are generally way off cinema's regular radar. It takes all Haneke's courage to explore them. Something he has relentlessly done since "the Seventh Continent" (1989). So, "Unknown Code" is a logical extension of Haneke's obsessions. To come back to the characters, they feel either humiliated either difficulties to communicate. When it crosses our minds that we live inside this distressing universe, it sends shivers down our spines. Once again Herr Haneke stirred some of the viewers's deep fears.
So, ultimately, "Unknown Code" isn't as accessible as Haneke's other works by its nonexistent linear narration and the seriousness of its theses but I think that it's a winner in Haneke's work. Of course, to watch a movie that breaks narrative conventions and expresses deeply pessimistic things is not for all tastes and that's partly why there'll never be general agreement about the famous Austrian film-maker but at least this movie brings to the light of day, thorny subjects hidden in the obscurity of cinema. It is a worthy movie far better than Hneke's next opus, "the Pianist" (2001) but that's another story...
"Unknown Code: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (Code inconnu:
Récit incomplet de divers voyages)" is a fascinating exploration of
communication, using all the elements of film to create a trompe l'oeil
of sight, sound and character interactions.
We see extended vignettes of people tangentially related through an accidental intersection in Paris. In a brief interview on the Sundance Channel, where I viewed the film, writer/director Michael Haneke said he specifically selected Paris because it is one of the few European cities whose multiculturalism is so visible. We see here how it attracts immigrants not only as traditionally from the rural countryside, but now from Eastern Europe and Africa.
Though not as violent as the incidents in "Amores perros", released the same year, or the later "Crash," the unsettling confrontation influences the characters' perceptions, of each other and of authority figures. We see them made sensitive to how people look, how people talk to each other, the sounds they make, and, even more importantly, shades how they interact. We see how differently people communicate with their own families, with their friends, their parents, their children, their colleagues, their lovers or their advisers, particularly through simple life cycle events.
Sometimes Michael Haneke toys with us, as the camera moves back and reveals that a poignant situation isn't as dire as we thought, particularly playing on the terrific Juliette Binoche's well-known image as a beautiful actress (and yes, she does look beautiful even standing around in lingerie ironing while watching TV). Or he plays ironic tricks having deaf kids do emotional charades or perform in a marching drum band or creating ambiguity about a door entry code to reinforce a theme of restless homelessness. We see lovers who communicate passionately without words, in one lovely scene even without touching. (I wonder if this scene with these two inspired a related scene in Rodrigo García's recent "Nine Lives.")
One key character is a self-righteous photojournalist (really stereotypically portrayed by bearded, hunky, disheveled Thierry Neuvic in a multi-pocketed vest with an ever-present camera around his neck) documenting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo or taking candid portraits of unaware subway passengers. But he is helpless at assisting his rebellious teen brother or sullen farmer father or estranged young son. Issues of responsibility to neighbors and passersby is viscerally shown to be not the extreme goal of stopping genocide, but rather providing dignity to a fellow human being or simply listening to what's happening next door and acting on it.
Haneke provides sympathetic insight into the inner lives of African immigrants, with an ear to how happenings look different to Western rationalists than to those used to revelations of divine and interpretive meanings, particularly in dreams, or sense of time.
But while he is very sympathetic to the pushes and pulls of immigration that change people's place in society from matriarch to "the gypsy" as the universal "other" who everyone higher up in society puts down, the family scenes in the Romanian village are more stereotyped, with ethnic wedding dancing.
Haneke's disarmingly passive style, with almost no music or cinematic affectations (he even mocks his Dogme-style use of sound by showing actors in the film-within-a-film re-dubbing dialog lost to a passing airplane) does make us feel like voyeurs, with each vignette constructed in a single take. In the filmed interview he said the key opening scene took 32 takes before he was satisfied.
Well, I suppose not - but he IS the most exciting and interesting new
filmmaker around. I would say "young filmmaker" - only he's not young;
judging from his bio he's around 60. And he's not really "new", either -
he's already made five films. But his films FEEL shockingly "new" - the
MATERIAL is new; and it's some measure of how glacial the pace of real
aesthetic change is in this supposedly-globalized world that he is only
becoming known in the U.S.
Those of you who have seen his best-known work, "Funny Games", would probably agree with me that it is the most horrifying movie ever made. "Games" coolly subverts the conventions of the horror movie to unremittingly punish the audience for its desire for violence. The effect is unbelievably harrowing.
Now we have "Code Unknown", which is not nearly as cruel an experience as "Funny Games", but which has the same strict intellectual armature. With as radical a technique as Godard's, Haneke takes a short scuffle in the streets of Paris as the point of departure for a meditation on true knowledge in a world of chance and mischance.
Haneke breaks the film up into short, disconnected fragments, with black spaces between them. In several no words are spoken, while others turn out to be "inside" films that the "lead" character, an actress played by Juliette Binoche, is making. Many are long, single shots - sometimes gliding along to follow the characters, but sometimes rooted in one spot as the characters drift to and fro. And the "stories", such as they are, wander too, from Paris to what looks like the Balkans, as Haneke follows Binoche, her war photographer boyfriend, his brother and father, a street beggar who is deported from Paris, a young black teacher of the deaf, and a host of other ancillary characters. What they don't understand - but we do - is that the course of their lives has been largely determined by encounters with people they'll never even know.
These people may think they're drowning in "too much information" - but actually, they don't have ENOUGH information; Haneke's recurring theme is our attempt to interpret a largely-unknown reality - and the problem of our responsibility to act on that interpretation. And despite a handful of longeurs, the effect is mostly completely absorbing. Those who were fascinated by the backwards-moving "Memento" will have a field day with "Code Unknown", where we have to tease out relationships, back story, and whether or not the narrative we're watching is "really" happening at all, with a lot fewer clues than Guy Pierce ever got.
And THEN - and this is what's interesting - somehow Haneke demands that we "make up our minds" about what we've seen; we feel compelled to judge, and yet we cannot - is the kid we see mistreating a beggar really a bad kid? Is the actress really being sealed up to die in a windowless room? Was the note from "a defenseless child" really written by an abused little girl (she turns up dead, so with a shock we appreciate what's at stake in our pause to consider the issue)? "Code Unknown" offers no answers - but then neither does life. The film ends with a scarily-happy drum-pounding by a chorus of deaf children.
I suppose what's startling about Haneke is that he has such an assured technique and yet eschews almost all directoral razzle-dazzle. He's not a Darren Aronofsky, ringing a dozen eye-popping changes on an essentially-empty story. And his intense horrors are justified by the depth and purity of his concerns - unlike those of, say, Tarentino or (God help us!) Guy Ritchie. Haneke's smarts are story and conceptual smarts, not adolescent film smarts; he's wildly daring, but he's icily mature. I'd almost say he's the heir to Kubrick's mantle, but these days that might be tarring him with an unwanted brush (as I watched "Code Unknown" I suddenly realized I was glad Pauline Kael was dead - she'd feel driven to sabotage this much intellectual challenge!).
I had to see "Code Unknown" at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston - however, there was a substantial crowd there; word is slowly getting out about Haneke. "Funny Games" is available on video (but be warned!); as far as I know, his latest, "The Pianist" (with Isabelle Huppert - Haneke's career is obviously being helped by interest from European-mainstream actresses) has yet to achieve a U.S. release. Here's hoping we'll see it in the States sometime soon.
A brilliant an original film. It unites current fads in art cinema, the frequent long take and multiple, interlocking storylines, both of which are in danger of becoming cliché. The way that these interlocking stories begin and end is very interesting. It gives us so little, and leaves us to figure out so much for ourselves. It's like a cinematic test of the psychological principle of closure. We ourselves have to connect the scenes and build the stories. In a way, it's kind of a game, and a fun one, at that. But it does cover some serious and important topics, namely the interaction of the various, and constantly increasing variety, of peoples in Europe. Most of the action takes place in France, although it does journey to Eastern Europe often and even Africa at one point. And, thankfully, Haneke isn't happy about simply making blanket political statements about the situation. For example, in the film's second scene, a white boy throws a piece of paper into a homeless woman's lap. A young black man, an immigrant from Africa, sees him and tries to force him to apologize to the woman. They get into a fight when the white boy refuses, the police see it and haul the black man, the white boy, and the homeless woman away. The black man is charged, the homeless woman, a refugee from Romania, is deported, and the white boy is let go. The criticism seems clear and obvious, until we find out that the piece of paper, which the audience is originally to think is garbage, is money. We learn this from the woman, who tells someone else about it and how she had once done nearly the same thing to someone below her in class. None of the stories are resolved. We are left to finish them for ourselves. This is one of the best films of recent years. Really, there have been a ton of highly-praised directors who rely entirely on bags of gimmicks. It's so nice to see a modern film that actually achieves something resembling a re-imagining of how narrative works in the cinema.
As per my review on Amazon.co.uk
Haneke's masterful look at a modern European city examines
exactly what it is like to 'exist' in western society. The multilayered
story has many protagonists and follows their lives after they are
linked by a single event. Anne (Binoche) is an actress, her
boyfriend Georges is a war photographer, his brother Jean has
run away from home, their father struggles to manage his farm
and keep his emotions supressed. Amidou is a first generation
african imigrant, who teaches deaf children music, his father is a
taxi driver. Maria, from Romania, has been deported from France
for begging but must make the humiliating journey back to provide
for her family.
The film is complex, yet simple. It essentially asks wheather we
can ever really communicate, wheather we are ever aware of the
significance of our actions and most devastatingly wheather we
have a duty to help even if we are not asked for help. Do we have a
Haneke's film is a technical tour-de-force, with perfectly sublime
performances. Binoche has not been better since her days with
Kieslowski. Her performance as the dispossessed actress is raw
and real. The final scenes devastating in their effectiveness and
To answer/comment on other reviews here - The drumming is symbolic - obviously of the beat of a city and of
course of a heartbeat, but also the (interesting) idea of deaf people
giving sound to other people, they are generously giving pleasure
they will not experience. The music is also one of the many
languages of the film.
The use of a fragmented narrative and loose "story" is a way of
showing the fluid nature of all our lives - reality is never neat like a
conventional film scenario.
This is a film that is hard to decipher. It will take numerous
viewings, but is certainly worth it. Do yourself a favour and stick
with it. Supreme!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Code Unknown was a revelation. The first Michael Haneke film I've seen,
I was surprised at how vitriolic the reviews on the film's IMDb page
arty-fartsy and incomprehensible seems to be the general consensus, yet
I found it remarkably vital and accessible for a film revolving around
race relations and everyday failures to communicate. Starting with an
incident on a French boulevard where misinterpreted actions have
consequences for all the wrong people, it proceeds in a series of
incomplete scenes by people linked by the incident or their
relationships with those involved, taking in a multi-ethnic city where
so many people have shut off from those around them that they either
fail to understand each others' problems or to even make the effort.
But what's particularly interesting is that it plays on the audiences own prejudices and presuppositions at one point we naturally assume that a young black character is seated away from the window booth he requested in a restaurant because of his colour, but no: it's because he turned up 45 minutes late and the place is busy. Similarly, it doesn't presume that people in what are supposed to be empathetic or compassionate professions are inherently good when Juliette Binoche's actress asks her war photographer boyfriend advice about the sounds of child abuse from a neighbouring flat, he doesn't want to know and her anger is more because he won't give her an out but forces the situation back on her. Her solution: ignore it. Even the innocent victim of the opening incident has to admit with shame that she herself had done the same thing to people she looked down on. It's beautifully worked out with several powerful sequences that are uncomfortably familiar to city dwellers (the metro sequence is particularly powerful) and somehow comes across as exhilarating as it is uncomfortable. Great film-making.
This is not a conventional film in the sense that the narrative is not complete. The myriad, unconnected short scenes from the lives of various characters that are presented to us have no beginning and no resolution. We come away having gained an insight into the lives of the various people we have seen, but wanting to know more about all of them. This makes for an incomplete experience, and if that is what you want or need then this is not a film for you. If on the other hand, a glimpse into the lives of people so every day and matter of factly portrayed, in a film so realistically set that suspension of disbelief is never an issue then this is a film for you. I came away, emotionally drained, without having had my emotions manipulated. On reflection (I think)this is a film about how cities dehumanise us, and on how we move together without connecting or communicating.
Strange. I saw within 24 hours one of the biggest frauds I've seen (the
despicable 'Crash') and one of the best films, 'Code Unknown'. Both
pictures examine preconception (be it racism, xenophobia, or like
societal concerns) but only 'Code Unknown' allows characters to live in
the rhythm and cadence of ordinary life as so many of us recognize it.
The picture concerns the being of about 7 characters, typically catching those involved at times that aren't necessarily, at least apparently, advancing to a conventional plot. Scenes often begin in their ostensible middle, characters are caught mid-sentence; this technique breathes a sense of organic freedom into the people we are watching, a technique that director Michael Haneke frequently uses to capture the reality of people as they simply exist. Here, the nature of connection is examined through the complex means of allowing the audience's preconceptions, as well as some (certainly not all) of the characters, to add meaning and gravity to what we see.
I loved this movie; seldom do I feel privileged to be able to engage in the lives of those on screen. The experience of watching 'Code Unknown' is akin to putting in earplugs and watching random people interact: after some time, the interactions of those we see become our own personal narrative, meaningful to us alone. While this film has its meaning, it also understands that the viewer's thoughts and feelings are just as relevant to the process as the film crew's. To put it another way, 'Crash' would have been a miserable failure of a movie even if I hadn't seen it. 'Code Unknown' seems to come into being as its being watched, an experience between the filmmakers and the viewers. Michael Haneke could make 10,000 more movies and it wouldn't seem enough.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
People on the boards below have labelled this film as 'challenging' -
they're right. It's difficult to compare with other films - certainly
any not by Haneke, such is the power of contemporary, original
cinematography. Shot in a long series of short scenes which, to someone
glancing at the film half-way through, could seem as though they are
totally unrelated. However, one of the (many) little points of magic
Haneke has implemented is that all the characters are connected not
only by an event in the initial scene, but thematically as well. I
don't want to spoil too much of the movie, but in a nutshell, this film
aims to discuss a number of political and social themes which do
connect, which in turn shed light on the thought that everything is
interconnected and the links these connections provide can take an
observer on a fascinating journey into one persons history/future and
then another's. Through the scuffle at the start of the film (wherein,
incidentally, themes of civil right, civic authority, morality, racism,
prejudice in general and sociology are all presented initially), the
characters who are apparently coincidentally caught up lead us into
enlargements on these themes and even introduce new ones. The big ones
are ones that were, importantly, contemporarily significant (and still
are) at the time of the film's 2000 release. Asylum seeking, the war in
Kosovo and communication on a very grand scale are three big ones. But
there's more - astoundingly - alienation of youth, bullying,
inter-familial relationships, nationality and a very intriguing look at
cinema itself in conjuncture with thematic exploration of the
individual, deception and a person's 'real self', or, as it is called
in the film, their 'true face'. Having just written that paragraph and
retraced the film in my mind, I find myself realising just how
expansive this piece is. This is surprising perhaps, as at first the
series of short scenes suggests that it is not possible to really
explore something in depth. But then again, inquires Haneke (I
imagine), if you get to the heart, the very point of something in a
short scene - what is that if not 'in depth'. I believe that is what
Haneke has achieved here - with remarkable skill. How? Well, the bottom
line is, this is exquisite drama. It's brilliantly, beautifully acted,
it's bold at times, it's suggestive without being glaring and then on
the other hand, it huddles things close to its chest which an observer
will only discover if they look very intently. Some of these I'm sure I
have not seen - the ones I have alone are too many in number to recount
here. Countless little things are running across my mind as I decide
what to include in this review - I must mention the cinematography in
detail. There are scenes where there is no dialogue; it is just an
image with 'background noise'. But whatever is happening there in that
scene is significant. It represents something and invites the viewer -
undisrupted by dialogue or some other special event - to ask
him/herself what that is. To say, 'what are the connections here, what
is this scene telling me, and what are other scenes telling me about
it'. That is why this works. To return to my introduction - the film is
challenging in an importantly constructive sense. It makes you think,
it makes you work to get the meaning - and not only that - once it has
you there, it's been so constructed that it shapes that meaning in a
certain way as to let you then perhaps rethink that idea in a new
context! For some this will deserve multiple viewings, but this is all
the better. I think everyone should watch it at least twice. There's
simply so much here and it's portrayed in such a refreshing way that it
would be criminal not to give it special attention.
P.s. A note on the title: A few suggestions have been voiced here as to what the 'unknown code' is - I think it's a number of things. Like many things in the film, such as themes, it is repeated here and there so as to be more effective to an audience. But repeated in a totally different and context. It could be the strange sign-language at the end of the film (communication being a major idea), it is most literally the door code to Anne's apartment but this in turn could represent attempts by the asylum seekers into France. Notice that Georges is removed from the apartment due to a fight and Maria is taken from France - due to a fight - and returns unsuccessfully. I think these are definite parallels - though they are tastefully engineered. This film excels in its ability never to be glaring, brash and obvious. It lets the film speak for itself. Which is what all films should do.
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