Published Nov 10, 2015The title of Michael Haneke's first French feature, Code Unknown, refers to several things, both figurative and literal, while encompassing the overall theme succinctly. Quite literally, it acknowledges the bookends of the film, stating the predicament that war photographer Georges (Thierry Neuvic) finds himself in when unable to recall the buzz code for his shared flat with actress Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche). Mostly though, it represents the failure of communication and abundance of inherent social disconnects amidst a modern multicultural urban landscape.
Haneke had originally planned to shoot this challenging look at the struggles of diversity in his home country of Austria. Though Funny Games was turning some heads at Cannes and TIFF at the time, the now-internationally acclaimed director was only known in small art-house circles at the time for his glaciation trilogy (Benny's Video, The Seventh Continent and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance). Juliette Binoche, whose celebrity was well established at the time, viewed these films and reached out to Haneke, indicating that she'd like to work with him. Thrilled, the Austrian alienation auteur viewed this as an opportunity to explore his themes in Paris, where the melting pot was denser and the conflicts greater, travelling there for several weeks to observe the culture and finalize the script that would eventually become Code Unknown.
Stylistically, this layered drama is a marked improvement on the deliberately fragmented aesthetic of 71 Fragments. Save the opening at the deaf school and a drastically out-of-place scene from within a film that Anne Laurent is starring in, only a single camera shot is used for each scene, following the action through tracking and singular eye. These tableaus are then divided into segments that end unexpectedly, cutting within a split second of dialogue completion or amidst action that presumably continued after things cut to black and emerge in a different situation with different characters.
As indicated by Haneke in the 2001 interview and 2000 "making of" supplement included with this Criterion Blu-ray, this technique was his effort to be honest with the audience, reminding them that this is a constructed narrative reality while similarly attempting to construct a singular gaze unmodified through conventional stylization or emotional manipulation. Throughout the film, the camera remains on the characters without any cuts or reverse shots, capturing only what someone observing the situation would be able to.
This is evident from the outset when Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), Georges' younger brother — a rural farm boy fleeing to the city before the film opens — throws trash on Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), an illegal Romanian immigrant and beggar, inciting rage in Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a Franco-African that witnessed the event. When the argument escalates to a physical altercation, Anne, having not seen the instigator of conflict and being in a relationship with Jean's older brother, takes the side of her acquaintance.
As this sequence takes place on a busy Parisian street in a single shot, the camera follows characters back and forth as they try to navigate the situation, occasionally taking us away from the action and through an abundance of onlookers without concern for reminding us what is happening outside of our gaze. It's a bold and complicated shot, as outlined in the supplement dedicated to it on the Blu-ray, reiterating the ideas of solipsism and our singular perspective, reminding the audience that it's nearly impossible for any single person to see the bigger picture.
As the story progresses, these characters all splinter into their own narratives, further commenting on the social disconnect in the region. Maria is deported after the police discover who she is; Jean is sent back to the farm; Georges comes back from Kosovo unable to articulate just what the experience of the war felt like; and Anne finds herself in a conflict with a passive-aggressive neighbour when she ignores the screams of a child.
Amidst these pointed sequences — all stories about people struggling to communicate or judging each other for not communicating in a manner that they feel is appropriate or "right" — are some inserts from Anne's audition and work on a thriller. In a way, this component doesn't fit with the others. A subway scene where Anne is harassed by a young Muslim man and is spit on fits in (particularly when an older Muslim man, embarrassed by the behaviour of this youth, stands up for Anne, a stranger), as does a scene where Georges discreetly photographs strangers without their knowledge, but the acting sequences are presumably there to demonstrate the difficulty in communicating a feeling or idea through manufactured performance. At least, it seems that way until the Criterion supplemental materials expand on Haneke's efforts to maintain some sort of honesty with Code Unknown by acknowledging Binoche's status as a known celebrity by constantly reminding us of her performance throughout the film.
This stylistic choice, while arguably the only flaw, is also crucial and inventive. The scene of Binoche auditioning for the thriller in a single shot in a locked room has an unnerving authenticity, just as a scene from the final cut of the film, wherein a child is at risk of falling off a tall building, stands out due to its dramatic stylistic shift, utilizing conventional thriller aesthetics. In a way, these sequences stand out because Haneke refuses to moralize or preach with this narrative. Though the subject could easily lend itself to glib solutions or an abundance of self-righteous posturing, Haneke's view is deliberately restrained and observational, removing judgment or presumption from the film. He's even careful to ensure all music and sounds are diegetic — including the drumming that connects the final few fragments of film — thus removing emotional manipulation and external influence from what we're seeing.
At the time, Code Unknown was received with only minor acclaim. Academics in Europe praised the film, championing its ability to mirror form and content while tackling a complex subject without attempting to simplify it. But it was barely acknowledged in North America, and was misunderstood by an abundance of reviewers (and this was before the Internet had made it commonplace for those without any film education or knowledge of theory to thrust their opinions onto the populace). It's only due to the success of Haneke's later films, such as The Piano Teacher and Caché, that Code Unknown has retroactively been given the respect it deserves on an international scale.
Fortunately, with this Criterion release, everything is explained quite coherently by Michael Haneke and film scholar Roy Grundmann. It seems that in some ways communication really can be effective.