****/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B-
starring Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri, Emil Marwa
screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce
directed by Michael Winterbottom
by Walter Chaw Visually, Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 locates its textures somewhere between the supple romanticism of Wong Kar-wai and the grimy lyricism of Lynne Ramsay. (Indeed, one of the film's two cinematographers, Alwin H. Kuchler, is also Ramsay's DP.) It's a science-fiction film in J.G. Ballard's barest definition of the genre--an exploration of time, space, and identity set in the near future in a cloud of languages and ideas--that periodically soars like invention can when it's raised from a foundation of familiar catastrophe and intimate calamity. Flanked in theatres by Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Joseph Ruben's The Forgotten, Code 46 represents one of three 2004 releases to deal with memory-tampering. Curious zeitgeist we find ourselves in, this mad desire to erase the past (and note a recent run of disaster flicks as well) and start anew.
William (Tim Robbins) has taken an empathy virus, making him capable of "reading" a person--a good skill for a corporate investigator hired on as the film opens to track down a forger of "papelles," exit visas that allow people to travel between the hermetically sealed cities of a body-phobic future. The fear seems to be of corruption from without leading to corruption from within, transforming the whole wide world into a giant oubliette in which the undocumented undesirables dwell, cut off from the pharmaceutical conveniences of the isolated metropolises. Though William soon identifies Maria (Samantha Morton) as the counterfeiter, he protects her from discovery because he's fallen in love with her--the empathy virus an apparent double-edged sword. The problem is that their mating is a "code 46" violation: their genetic codes are too similar, and a biological offspring from their union is forbidden in this future. What choice is there but for them to forget one another?
Maria speaks Mandarin Chinese because of another virus with which she's had herself infected, though she confesses that she doesn't understand what she's saying. The slipperiness of language and symbol becomes the ineffable backbone of Code 46, the title itself suggesting a combination of word and number meaningless but for the sense of mystery that is signifies, with the promise of the film thus acting as a Rosetta stone. Code 46 doesn't, however, provide any easy answers to the problem of how language itself is, as William S. Burroughs once suggested, a virus that lives in uneasy symbiosis with humanity, offering up a multitude of sense reaction and academic readings without itself being anything other than a series of noises and gestures. The problem with learning an alien tongue is that language doesn't mean a thing without a common well of signs and signifiers.
Winterbottom's alien tongue is a word salad comprised of English, French, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish, crystallizing in speech what Ridley Scott's Blade Runner suggested in billboards and snatches of street patois. "Lo siento, lo siento, lo siento--that's all you can say" plays like a manifestation of Cormac McCarthy's unpunctuated, unadorned prose, and Code 46 likewise unfolds like a science-fiction novel written by McCarthy. It's all shadows and strobes, the film's most effective moment shot in a club where Maria is revealed in flashes. It's the film deconstructing the shutter-stop nature of film and in so doing identifying itself as inadequate to the task of understanding the delicate ballet of strangers falling in love. Code 46 seems to resign itself to suggesting that the key to the puzzle lies in the audience's own experience of the mystery; William falling for Maria to a techno hallucination makes a tactile sense. Winterbottom is at his best when he elevates the cinema's lunar art into something that can be worked around in the mouth and ground between the fingertips.
The alien tongue is literal, but it's also the ineffable vagaries of human emotions and aspirations that draws from a three word phrase: "I miss you" (a deep, bitter draught of personal melancholy and longing). This is a lonesome film, a Wim Wenders piece that exploits in Morton the essence of Maria Falconetti that she's worn like a shroud for the bulk of her amazing recent output. It fears sleep like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it listens to the words of songs, and it takes chances. It breathes in a way that most movies don't, and it comes to conclusions that are terrifying and unbearably sad in the same series of sledgehammer instants. Code 46 is alive and bursting with ideas and the almost insouciant confidence to take an impossible premise and let it off its leash. There have been less problematic films this year, but it'll be a long time before I can get the image of Morton in ecstasy or agony in a strobe-split black out of my head. Originally published: August 6, 2004.
by Bill Chambers MGM presents Code 46 on DVD in a curious 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The film was shot on three-perf 35mm stock to allow for smaller magazines and therefore lighter cameras/increased mobility; according to Greg Carson's worthwhile supplemental featurette, "Obtaining Cover: Inside Code 46", director Michael Winterbottom purposely avoided digital video because he wanted the crispness of celluloid, and yet there is often a PAL-like quality to the image here that considerably softens definition and shadow detail. Though this oddly enhances the ethereal mood of Code 46, it's worth noting that both an extended clip of William's interrogation montage (one of four short "deleted scenes" included on the disc) and the bonus theatrical trailer look a little sharper than the main feature, which may in fact be the victim of overfiltering. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio seems more faithful to intent, but having said that, don't expect fireworks--the only scene that really needs or utilizes the discrete soundstage takes place inside a dance club and is vidcapped above. The aforementioned elisions, trailer, and 17-minute making-of--in which Winterbottom bears a striking resemblance to fellow interviewee Tim Robbins and the intimidating Samantha Morton calls herself a bad actor (!)--round out the platter. Previews for Angel of Death and Confessions of an American Girl precede the main menu. Originally published: August 8, 2005.