© 2008 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
CODE UNKNOWN
The films of Austrian director Michael Haneke
are not known for their facile ways. Indeed,
audiences are required to pay attention and think
as his particular vision unspools on the silver
screen. For some, it can become tedious and
boring; for others, it is a rewarding challenge.
Unlike most Hollywood feature directors, Haneke
doesn't feel the need to tie the story up in a
neat, comprehensible manner. Instead, he poses
more questions than he answers, leaving it up to
each audience member to impose his or her own
views onto the story. Having trained in
psychology and philosophy, that mixture is
embodied in his work.
CODE UKNOWN, then, will
either leave one maddeningly confused or deeply
moved. I doubt, though, that any viewer could
remain on the fence about the film.

In his bravura opening sequence, an
extended, nearly ten-minute take of a woman
walking on the streets of Paris and the people
she encounters, Haneke establishes not only the
film's theme, but he also introduces nearly all of
the key players. The woman is Anne (Juliette
Binoche), an actress. On her way to a rehearsal,
she meets her lover's younger brother Jean
(Alexandre Hamidi) who has fled to the city
to escape the boredom of farm life. She buys
him something to eat and after she leaves him,
he tosses the crumpled paper and scrap of
leftover croissant at Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu),
a Romanian woman illegally in Paris making her
living as a beggar. Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), the
son of an African taxi driver, accosts Jean and
demands he apologize. When the police arrive,
it is Amadou and Maria who are taken away. He
is jailed for disturbing the peace; she is deported
to her homeland. Jean disappears and Anne
attempts to get on with her life, which becomes
further complicated by the return of her war
photographer lover Georges (Thierry Neuvic) and
the sounds of possible child abuse in a
neighboring apartment.

Haneke employs a fragmented, episodic
structure to
CODE UNKNOWN (most scenes end
with a blackout and the soundtrack also just
stops, sometimes in mid-word) and he deals with
the moral repercussions of the small events in
people's lives. (Not for nothing is this film
subtitled
Incomplete Tales of Several
Journeys
.) Perhaps since the events of
September 11, 2001, the film has taken on more
resonance, indicating just how profound the
effects of seemingly random events may have
on a person's life. He later reiterates this idea
when Anne becomes the target for an Arab youth
on the Metro who verbally assaults her and then
spits at her when she attempts to get away from
him.

The performances are uniformly intriguing.
Each character is clearly delineated but their
connections are sometimes only obliquely hinted
at. While Haneke's theme is clearly the difficulty
of communicating in a modern world, he uses
haunting film images to make his point. Georges
has taken numerous photographs of the ravages
of war in Kosovo and then attempts to reconnect
with humanity by surreptitiously shooting
pictures
of unsuspecting subway riders. (In one way, this
is as much a violation as the overt encounter
Anne suffered.) His father, depressed that
neither of his sons wants the legacy of his farm,
kills his cows. Maria strives to return to Paris
from Romania in order to make a better life for
her family. Even though she is basically on the
streets in France, the conditions seem superior
to those in her native land. Amadou's family
must struggle with the aftermath of his arrest
and incarceration, just as his students -- he's a
music teacher at a school for the
hearing-impaired -- must deal with his absence.
Anne, who is shooting a murder mystery, also
must face the consequences of her actions. She
has fallen out of love with Georges and in a
devastating moment that may or may not be
her playing out a scene, she confesses to him
in a supermarket aisle that she had an abortion.
Haneke understands that as a director he must
manipulate an audience and this scene, as well
as two involving the film-within-the-film are
perfect examples of his grasp of his role.

Binoche, who I will confess is one of my
favorite actresses, here gets to essay a
compelling figure, an actress who in her off
screen life cannot "act." When she hears what
are clearly the sounds of abuse coming from her
neighbor's apartment, she freezes, not knowing
what to do. While coolly confident in her "reel"
life, she is at sea in "real" life. It's a dynamic
portrait and one that holds the film together.
The other actors, lesser known to American
audiences, are all well-cast.

CODE UNKNOWN may require some extra
effort on the part of the audience, but those
who are willing to take that step will be amply
rewarded. It may also make one stop and think
about just what kind of impact one makes in
daily life, how a smile or a frown could trigger
a myriad of reactions. One of the many questions
which Haneke poses clearly asks just what the
ripple effect of a seemingly minor incident may
be. Or as he put it, "Is truth the sum of what
we see and hear?"


Rating:                   B+
MPAA Rating:        None
Running time:       117 mins.