Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys
Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages
****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Sepp Bierbichler, Ona Lu Yenke
written and directed by Michael Haneke
by Bryant Frazer In the vignette that opens Code Unknown, a young girl in pigtails, maybe 9 or 10 years old, cowers against a plain wall, trembling before director Michael Haneke's static camera. If you know Haneke's work--his previous film at the time, Funny Games, had depicted the torture and murder of a bourgeois French mom and dad plus their fair-haired moppet--the image is more than a little disturbing. But Haneke immediately pulls the rug out. Rather than cry, the girl suddenly stands and smiles, looking expectantly towards the camera. Haneke then cuts to reverse angles on different children, in close-up, also looking towards the camera. The girl has an audience, and so we understand that she was giving a performance. In this case, it's a game of charades among deaf children, with the spectators attempting to guess, using sign language, what the girl was trying to convey. "Alone?" one girl signs. The girl in pigtails shakes her head. Another signs, "Hiding place?" No. Nor is she trying to convey "guilty conscience," "gangster," "sad," or even "locked up." In the face of so many impassive classmates, the girl in pigtails finally looks weary and maybe on the verge of tears for real. With that, the screen goes black, and the title appears: Code Unknown.
That's a spooky moment, in part because its implications are frankly terrifying. If fear is an unknown sign--if this little girl can't broadly pantomime feeling frightened in a way that makes sense to a room full of schoolchildren, what chance do the rest of us have? There are other layers of meaning, of course. The scene builds and deflates tension by manipulating the audience's experience. We may believe the girl is actually being menaced until the moment she breaks character, revealing that she has been performing a fiction, a miniature story-within-the-story. (It's a strategy that Haneke will revisit in the body of the film.) Haneke's cut from her to the other students, staring blankly at her, uncomprehending, might parallel the relationship between an artist and an audience bewildered by his art; certainly the presence of unhearing and unspeaking spectators underscores the status of film as a visual form, while the choice of sign language resonates with the movie's title, which indicates the arrival of unfamiliar, perhaps new, symbols in a shared language. For a scene that occupies less than two minutes of screentime, it offers a lot to unpack. And, followed immediately by Haneke's writer-director credit, it says something else: Away we go.
Haneke sets the rest of Code Unknown in motion immediately, staging a masterful eight-minute tracking shot that starts out as a standard-issue walk-and-talk, then turns into something thornier. It begins with an actress, Anne (Juliette Binoche), meeting her young brother-in-law, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), on the street outside her Paris apartment, and ends after Jean humiliates Romanian beggar Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), earning the ire of Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a young African who means to make Jean apologize to the woman but instead attracts the attention of police. As Amadou scuffles with the cops, Haneke again cuts to black. Code Unknown is a series of these short scenes. They unfold almost exclusively in real time, often within a single shot, sometimes moving forwards and backwards in time to fill in the chronology. (The picture is subtitled "Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys.") The formal strategy allows Haneke to execute a very small film with the scope of an intergenerational and transcontinental epic, shooting just enough footage to suggest the larger storyline leading into and out of the key moments depicted.
In tiny parcels of narrative, we learn that Amadou's miscalculation results in both his arrest and Maria's deportation, and we get glimpses of the falling-out between Jean and his father that led him to Anne's doorstep. We see Anne at work on set and on stage, and we witness increasingly awkward glimpses of her relationship with Georges (Thierry Neuvic), a photographer who begins the picture on assignment in Kosovo and subsequently turns to snapping surreptitious black-and-white candids on subway trains. Georges's wartime experiences are represented only by a series of still photographs flashed on screen and, separately, by his wry anecdote about the time he was imprisoned by a Taliban guard who kept asking him, oddly, "How can I help you?" Haneke also manages to take us on location to Romania for Maria's uneasy reunion with her family and, briefly, to West Africa, where Amadou's father has returned to rejoin extended family, disembarking from a boat and driving slowly through a marketplace crowded with pedestrians.
In an interview from around the time of Code Unknown's release, Haneke matter-of-factly identified immigration from poor countries in Africa and the Middle East to richer nations as "the main issue for Europe this century," and the events of the last fifteen years have merely confirmed his assessment. (As a matter of fact, Haneke seems set to return to the subject with a new feature being shot outside the French town of Calais, near one locus of the current refugee crisis, later this year.) Haneke may not have explicitly identified the threat of terrorism as the political football it would become after the World Trade Center attack of 2001, but Code Unknown plays entirely in character as a post-9/11 film, revealing how cultural tensions create fissures in a society that largely believes itself to be above petty racism.
In this context, even seemingly insignificant gestures motivated by race and class--the "microaggressions" of current social theory--can have outsized consequences. Jean's offense against immigrant Maria (he throws an empty pastry bag into her lap in passing) is certainly disrespectful but not especially harmful in itself; it only has serious repercussions because Amadou's sense of social justice escalates the incident and brings the police into the picture. There's a later reversal of roles, in a diabolically tense scene on a subway car where an Arab teenager homes in on Anne, mocking her beauty and describing himself as "just a little Arab looking for a little affection" as a friend cackles in the background. Some critics have identified right-wing inflections in this scene, as it evokes the fears of urban-bourgeois xenophobes, but it's hardly reactionary to notice that the objects of widespread racism and oppression sometimes bridle against the dominant social and economic caste. Anyway, it's a brilliantly-staged tableau, with Haneke's locked-down camera holding Anne in the frame as she struggles to retain composure while the teenager moves in and out of the shot.
Anne's strenuous non-reaction is another example of performance, of course, but it's an example, too, of impassive spectatorship: By maintaining a poker face, she pretends not to notice or comprehend the boy's taunts as they escalate into outright aggression. (When the boys leave the train and she finally weeps, we realize how hard she had been working to hide her feelings.) Haneke is concerned here with what people notice, and how much they understand. The early scene where Amadou confronts Jean about his treatment of Maria takes place on a crowded city street, but Amadou, a black man, is apparently alone in registering Jean's transgression. On the subway, just one man (Maurice Bénichou), himself apparently of Middle Eastern descent, sides with Anne, carefully folding his glasses and handing them to her before drawing himself up to his full height next to the boy. In another long single take, Anne and Georges fight while browsing a French supermarket as chilly-white as a freezer compartment or an Apple Store, where other shoppers witness their verbal squabble. (In another performative gambit, Anne may or may not confess to having had an abortion.) It ends in a passionate embrace near the shelf-stable milk and packaged juices.
So what is real--are they a happy couple, or are they on the skids? Perhaps as foreshadowing, an earlier sequence begins in a swimming pool, where Anne is paddling around with a man who's not her husband. It's only once we notice that Haneke is suddenly cutting freely between camera angles (and ratcheting up the tension with a child-in-jeopardy scenario) that we may suspect we're being fooled, that this is somehow another story within a story. As the camera pulls back from a projection screen showing the scene in progress, Haneke reveals that Anne is on an ADR recording stage with the man, her co-star in the horror flick she's shooting, to overdub dialogue imperfections. ("Is it so hard to tell him, 'I love you?'" the director of the session asks her when she repeatedly fluffs her cue.)
Code Unknown's final scene returns to sign language, as a boy gestures elaborately before us. The clear impression is that he is speaking boldly and fluidly and with some degree of joy, though Haneke offers no subtitles this time around, and no surrogate audience materializes on screen before it goes black and the credits roll--a clear acknowledgment that this time around, it's Code Unknown's audience that's watching and struggling to make sense of unfamiliar signs. The hectoring Funny Games sought to rebuke viewers who willingly consumed its story of smug sadism, and Code Unknown's assertion that the audience is unable to fully grasp Haneke's meaning could be read as another example of his didacticism, but the latter film is more earnest and rigorous. Its formal strategies are borderline radical, largely eschewing the bedrock grammar of editing and eventually doing away with synchronized sound, as scenes building to the climax are scored to the cacophonous rhythms of a percussion band conducted by Amadou. I hesitate to call the tactics employed "experimental," a term that tends to diminish the results they achieve. It's clear, however, that Haneke expects viewers to question his decisions rather than give themselves over to him. One scene may speak directly to the filmmaker's position as communicator and illusionist playing to an audience that will only exist after the fact. Anne is on stage as Maria in Twelfth Night at an apparent audition, with only a small staff present in the seats. Her performance is risky, characterized mainly by her own convulsive laughter, but she receives no feedback from her director. The scene ends with Anne stepping up to the edge of the stage, peering into the darkness, and asking plaintively, "Anyone out there?" Code Unknown shows that, like the gaps between human beings, the gulf between artist and audience--between representation and reality--is vast and unknowable, and yet it's in that space where meaning lies.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Code Unknown on Criterion Blu-ray represents a huge advance on the previous, appallingly bad Region 1 DVD from Kino Video. With a video bitrate running at a posh 31 Mbps, the Criterion transfer is sourced from the original camera negative with colour-timing supervised by Haneke himself. Likewise, the original 5.1-channel soundmix was remastered from 35mm mag tracks. The results are compelling--nice film grain, abundant detail, and moderate saturation. The picture is not especially high-contrast overall, but dynamic range is well preserved from the highlights down into the shadows, and the colours, pushed way to the cool side of the palette, have been lovingly managed to retain the look of celluloid. I wish I could describe the image as perfect, but eagle-eyed viewers have identified a handful of dropped frames. (I noticed only one of these on my initial play-through, at around 8:40, but confirmed that others are present at around 9:11, 10:08, and perhaps 20:54.) Enigmatic Criterion spokesperson Jon Mulvaney has said the company is "looking into it," although I'm unaware of any resolution. Sound quality is flat-out outstanding--this film goes loud-quiet-loud, like a Pixies song, with exceptional dynamic range, very little noise, and thunderous overtones when the sounds of Amadou's percussion band are blasting urgently from all channels.
Special features are not especially voluminous but are certainly enlightening. Billed as an "introduction" and borrowed from Artificial Eye's DVD, a four-minute clip of Haneke speaking in subtitled French about the film helps clarify some of his intentions as he muses lightly on the difference between the captured image and reality. Allowing viewers to recognize the manipulative tactics of the director is, he says, "a matter of honesty." This amuse-bouche is backed up by "In a Foreign Country: Michael Haneke on Code Unknown" (29 mins., HD), a new interview with Haneke (in subtitled German) conducted by Criterion in August, 2015. Haneke's work can seem grim and adversarial, but Code Unknown is a notable exception to that rule and he knows it. ("I think it's my mildest film," he avers, then makes a point of crediting his public for understanding the film.) On the whole, Haneke is pretty candid, discussing some of his bedrock rules for filmmaking (never deviate from the script, allow no unmotivated camera movement, put important dialogue off screen). Criterion has also included invaluable shots of storyboards and screenplay pages (they reside in the Michael Haneke Collection at Vienna's Österreichisches Filmmuseum) showing how he committed the sequence shots to paper before actually shooting them. It would have been really nice to see more of those pages, if not all of them. This is a very rewarding watch--just seeing Haneke describe the plot of his once-mooted thriller The Collector is worth the cost of admission.
Two more standard-def supplements have been borrowed from the Artificial Eye release. The excellent 2000 making-of short "Filming Haneke" runs 27 minutes and is packed with behind-the-scenes footage of the boulevard and subway shoots that underscores the difficulty of getting such scenes in the can. Actors Juliette Binoche and Alexandre Hamidi and producer Marin Karmitz are interviewed, as well. The 11-minute "Haneke on the Boulevard Sequences", from 2001, features Haneke going into more detail on the meticulous planning that went into boulevard shoot, describing the difficulty of finding a suitable location and discussing changes he made to his script to better fit the environment.
In another new HiDef extra, this one also recorded in August of 2015, film scholar Roy Grundmann, editor of the essay collection A Companion to Michael Haneke, discusses Code Unknown in the context of Haneke's work up to that point, drawing on Haneke's first three features, which Haneke has called his "glaciation trilogy." It's not clear whether Funny Games is ignored because it has less relevance to Code Unknown or because of rights issues preventing the use of clips; either way, it's conspicuously absent from the discussion. Three short French teasers for Code Unknown round out the disc, each running under two minutes in length. One wonders if Haneke had any hand in their making, but unfortunately, no context is provided. SIGHT & SOUND editor Nick James provides a new essay on Code Unknown and other Haneke works for the foldout. It covers some of the same territory as Grundmann's contribution but is by no means redundant. This is a nice package that does justice to the film, but I have to wish that Criterion had dug up more archival material to properly welcome Haneke to the collection.