Criterion Challenge #780
Breaking the Code
Watching Michael Haneke films is a torture and a guilty pleasure, the pain it invoked is the “realization of human’s evil”, where else the pleasure is “learning to endure and cope with the irresistible evil”. Arguably, since no real happy ending could be found in Haneke films (is there ever a real one in cinema, isn’t it all a kind of… projection?), one may find the pleasure unsound. But one have to believe s/he is guilty for the existence of evil, before finding the pleasure along remorsefulness. It somehow echoes the concept of “original sin” in Christianity, one have to confess of being sinful, before seeking for salvation. For Michael Haneke, he’s more appealed to exploitation of the former one, while letting the spectators deal with the aftermath themselves, hence the salvation came not from the films themselves, but from the confession of the spectators admitting that “yes I am capable of committing the same horrendous crime and carrying out the same relentless evil”. If one condemn the scenes as being immoral, one simply eschew the guilt, hence the pleasure.
CODE UNKNOWN may view as a summation of Haneke’s preceding films, as well as a departure to his later ones. There’s the atmosphere of unsettling mundaneness pervading the films from THE SEVENTH CONTINENT (1989) to AMOUR (2012), which reached the explicit high point in FUNNY GAMES (1997), and implicitly sipped through in CODE UNKNOWN. The opening scene with deaf children guessing a word, an inexplicable “code”, provided a motif for the film: the miscommunication. It came in full circle when a deaf kid appeared at the end, doing another gesture, again, without a concrete answer of the “code”. It also leads to the first long tracking shots, introducing the principal characters in a boulevard, then follows their perspective thereafter with a single take per scene.
The boulevard take is meticulously handled with such a precision that admiration could only be made by repeated acclamation. Anne (Juliette Binoche) met Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), the self-absorbed brother of her boyfriend Georges (Thierry Neuvic), at the entrance of her apartment as he couldn’t get in due to not knowing the entrance code. Anne was in a hurry to an appointment, so they talked while they walked along the street, with the camera tracking their conservation and moving along with them to the right. Anne reluctantly gave Jean the key as well as the entrance code then left, thereafter Jean strode right back to the left, passing the same street. Feeling frustrated and the mind pre-occupied, he threw a paper bag to the lap of the nearby lady beggar, Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu). A self-righteous young African man Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke) came upon and requested Jean to apologize to Maria. Things escalated, Anne came back to protect Jean while the police arrived. The results? Maria got deported back to Romania and Amadou got detained temporarily by the law enforcers. Reasons? They are communicating with the wrong code. (This also reflects the multinational languages and races in Paris)
This particular scene, this incident, may not be too far away from any videos uploaded to the Internet nowadays, proclaiming of street violence or police brutality. Except it was more artistically handled as a film of course, thus conveying a clearer, but still not a complete, picture of a single incident before it even commenced. The power of the tension collided with perspectives of us, the spectators. Are we feeling the same outrageousness as Amadou felt towards Jean’s behavior? Are we feeling sorry for Jean’s mishap? Or do we even care what’s on the mind of Maria who simply sit in the wrong place at the wrong time? What would I do if I were one of them? These questions are raised, mixed feelings are aroused without any potential resolution foreseen.
As the sub-title (a code for decipher?) of the film, “Incomplete Tale of Several Journeys”, stated, all we got are just glimpses, fragments or pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Hence, the immediate scene is a slide show of a collection of still photos taken in a war zone, only later on we learnt Georges, Anne’s boyfriend, is a war photographer, and presumably these are his photos and the narration is his voice. Sometimes, a scene would end abruptly in the middle of a conversation, reinforcing the idea of incompleteness extended from 71 FRAGMENTS OF A CHRONOLOGY OF CHANCE (1994).
Unlike AMORES PERROS (2000) or CRASH (2004), which provided a significant incident (both a traffic accident) as a major life-changing event for its principal characters, CODE UNKNOWN moved on quickly and deemed the incident as mild as daily life. They seldom cross paths with each other, and their lives are not intermingled as one would expect in similar types of films. For instances, Maria got back to Paris eventually, without much difficulty and struggle, but not after the disclosure of her own humiliation. Amadou’s family continues to struggle with their unequal social status and daily difficulties. They lived on, while everything almost unchanged. In contrary, we experienced much more in Anne’s life, though mainly unrelated to the incident in the boulevard. She performed in rehearsal of the new film since her vocation is an actress; she suspected domestic violence in her neighbors; she experienced up-and-down moment in her relationship with Georges; and near the end of the film, she got harassed unexpectedly by an Arabian man in a subway. The subway scene, once again demonstrated the sudden emergence of evil in a mundane situation. This time, there was a small glimpse of hope in humanity, probably the most optimistic moment within the strikingly appalling circumstances which constantly appeared within Haneke’s oeuvre.
Haneke’s continuous obsessiveness on media and its related technology is exhibited again in CODE UNKNOWN, having a fuzzy rehearsal recording similar to those in BENNY’S VIDEO (1992), and the film-within-a-film structure (in contrast, a “normal” film editing technique is used) foreshadowing the opening scene in CACHE (2005). Yet, among the provocative works of Michael Haneke, CODE UNKNOWN is the mildest, in other words, the most exquisite and elliptical one. It indulged with the issues of races (again in CACHE) and refugees, a major controversy reignited recently in Western Europe. Would there be a universal solution in dealing with human beings, the others, the non-self? Perhaps with the guilty conscience and altruism, one may break the unknown code someday.
All the supplements are essential in understanding the film itself. Though the making-of documentary and the 10-minute explanation of the boulevard scene from Michael Haneke could be found in old DVD, there are enough new interviews (one with Haneke reflecting the film retrospectively; the other one with film scholar Roy Grundmann) to spend the time on.
Criterion Release: 4/5