Michael Haneke is the king of uneasy cinema. This film, from 2001, is one of his strangest works (although saying that about a Haneke film is is like singling out a Transformers movie and labelling it the most stupid – the adjective is stitched into the cinematic territory). Code Unknown doesn’t try to tell a coherent story, and so it won’t satisfy those who crave a Hollywood-assured beginning, middle and end.
The film is Haneke’s first French language feature, and attempts to show the disconnected nature of contemporary life in Paris. The drama is split between three groups of people. The first group is a French actor (Juliette Binoche) and her family. She tries to juggle her acting career and travel to auditions while confronting some troubling aspects in her domestic life. Another slice of Parisian life concerns a teacher of deaf children (Ona Lu Yenke). We follow him as he goes on a slightly awkward date and watch as he becomes a victim of racism. A key scene in the movie, one that occurs near the start of the film, sees the young teacher ask a teenage boy to apologise to a Romanian woman (Luminita Gheorghiu) who is sat outside a bakery. The boy had thrown a piece of rubbish at the woman, and when he is told to say sorry for his actions a scuffle occurs. The third group of people consists of the homeless woman’s family and how the incident in the street affects her life.
Haneke has always been at his best when he is making the audience feel complicit in the action onscreen. As with his unbearably tense 1997 thriller Funny Games, he succeeds in blending fact with fiction. Of course, the whole thing is fiction, but through the clever use of slide shows and video clips he expertly stains the film with a tangible sense of foreboding. It’s hard not to feel responsible for the things we see happen in the film.
Of course, for a film this intelligent, there will be those who don’t understand what it is trying to do, and also those who are not willing to be manipulated and twisted by its uncomfortable grasp. In the case of this film, I can forgive and readily understand both such views. This is not a film for everyone, and it is possible Haneke is perhaps too unforgiving and inaccessible with some of his moral messages. But those with open and curious minds should sample its bleak, visually arresting magic.
A note on the disc: Artificial Eye’s release of this film does not boast a particularly strong transfer. Colours are deliberately dull, but the detail and definition leaves a lot to be desired. This film is never going to have a glossy, pristine feel, however it is released, but one can’t help but feel it could have been done a little bit better. This may not be a fault of Artificial Eye, as the quality of their releases depends on the condition of the masters they are supplied with.
Code Unknown (2001), directed by Michael Haneke, is distributed on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye, Certificate 15.