Code Unknown (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner05/06/2001

Three stars out of five
Running time: 117 mins

Worthy, challenging, heavily art-house-centric feature that explores ideas of immigration, communication, xenophobia and representations of reality within fiction.

Austrian director Michael Haneke made a considerable impact back in 1997 with Funny Games, a truly terrifying film which managed to make its audience uncomfortably complicit in the activities of its two torturer/ killers. Similarly, his latest film The Piano Teacher has just won prizes at Cannes and is eagerly awaited in art-house aficionado circles.

In the meantime, however, we have Code Unknown (which itself won a special prize at last year’s Cannes festival) – a film that defies all the usual dramatic conventions in favour of a series of what the subtitle to the film tells us are "incomplete journeys".

After an initial scene set in a school for deaf children, in which the children try to guess what is being mimed by one of the students (immediately establishing the theme of the difficulty of communication), the film opens on a busy Paris street. A young lad has run away to Paris and is hoping to crash on the floor of his brother Georges’ (Thierry Neuvic) girlfriend’s apartment, only he doesn’t know the door-code to get in, so he waits for her.

When she appears (Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a theatre actress making the transition to cinema), she gives him the code and we learn that he has run away because he doesn’t want to take over his father’s farm.

As the boy heads towards the apartment he contemptuously drops litter in the lap of a Romanian beggar (Luminita Gheorghiu plays Maria) and he is immediately taken to task by Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), who we later learn is a music teacher at the school. A fight ensues, the police are called and the film then follows each of the individual characters, including Georges, a war photographer who is rarely in Paris.

Astonishingly, that entire scene takes place in one continuous nine-minute take, and this sets the tone for the rest of the film, which uses single-takes with minimal camera-movement and no cut-aways, except for a deceptive film-within-the-film sequence which serves to highlight the manipulative nature of such techniques.

Haneke also uses other devices such as abruptly ending scenes (often mid-sentence) and separating each scene with a two-second black-out. These techniques provide a structurally fragmented viewpoint that stands in direct contrast to conventional narrative formats and yet succeeds in conveying both story and character. As the scenes themselves never follow directly on from each other, it’s almost as if they are snapshots (underlined by Georges’ profession) with the viewer left to fill in the gaps.

Though the film itself is both challenging and complicated, there are, nonetheless, several memorably powerful scenes, such as: an underground ride in which Binoche is taunted by an Arab lad; a heartfelt scene in which Maria talks about the humiliation of begging; and one of Georges’ letters to Anne, read over a series of secretly-taken photos of underground passengers.

Similarly, a couple of scenes feature Anne at work, both during an audition scene for a creepy horror movie, and re-dubbing an existing scene (initially presented as a "real" scene) from the movie - significantly, these are the only times we see Binoche in close-up, and tellingly, neither she nor her fellow actor can keep a straight face during the re-dubbing. These scenes are both jarring in their use of close-up and a telling comment on audience manipulation.

To sum up, then, Code Unknown demands close attention and a good deal of work on behalf of the audience. However, the end result is undeniably different from the usual art-house fare, taking the multi-plot narrative conventions of the likes of Magnolia and delivering something that remains with you long after the lights go up. Not for all tastes, but well worth a look.

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Content updated: 21/08/2018 22:53

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