Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Code Unknown

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CODE UNKNOWN

8/10

(CODE UNKNOWN : INCOMPLETE TALES OF SEVERAL JOURNEYS)
Code Inconnu : Recit incomplet de divers voyages
France 2000
director/script : Michael Haneke
cinematography : Jurgen Jurges
editing : Andras Prochaska, Karin Hartusch, Nadine Muse
lead actors : Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Ona Lu Yenke, Luminata Georghiu
118 minutes

When exactly? You can’t quite remember. You add it all up, there is always something missing somewhere. A few seconds unaccounted for. A missing factor in any equation. The invisible mould of what is not that inexorably determines what is

William S Burroughs

Code Unknown Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys is a bit of a mouthful. Conscience and consequence would perhaps be a more economic alternative, with its appropriately Jane Austen-ish air. Because, like so many 19th-century novels, Code Unknown is essentially an attempt to extend the circumference of its audiences sympathy, with a special focus on a slightly over-sensitive artistic youngish female: here, actress Anne (Binoche). But Hanekes techniques are aggressively modern: his film is as much a product of Jean-Luc Godard as George Eliot. There is a narrative, and there are stories, but they exist only as fragments, and the audience must work to piece them together these are incomplete tales, according to the subtitle. And, as the main title indicates, the film deliberately aims to be difficult, impenetrable: perhaps, even, indecipherable.

Hanekes last picture, 1997s Funny Games, was a darkly comic masterpiece of excruciating claustrophobia: with Code Unknown, he widens his canvas, aiming for nothing less than a panoramic snapshot of Europe today. He takes an apparently innocuous, everyday event, then traces the ripples of consequence that spread out over time and space. An intriguing idea – although it doesn’t quite come off, this is still a very original, absorbing kind of near miss.

On a Paris street, actress Anne (Binoche) buys a sandwich for Jean, the young brother of her boyfriend Georges (Neuvic), a war photographer away in Kosovo. After he’s finished eating, Jean casually drops the paper bag in the lap of Maria (Georghiu), a street beggar, outraging passer-by Amadou (Yenke), who demands an apology from Jean. The ensuing scuffle attracts the attention of the police: Amadou is arrested, Maria deported to Romania. The narrative follows each of the characters and stories, switching between Paris, rural France, Romania, and even further afield.

This mosaic technique is often popular among ambitious directors, as it gives them carte blanche to chuck in pretty much anything they feel like, especially when, as here, their theme is the mysterious impenetrability of everyday life, and how hard it is for modern, isolated invididuals to communicata,e There are times when Haneke strays into the trap of self-indulgence, and its up to Binoche to hold things together. Shes seldom looked so unglamorous on screen, but, if anything this emphasises her appeal her vulnerability warms up an otherwise chilly, though always fascinating, cinematic exercise.

13th June, 2001

by Neil Young