Code Unknown Review

Noel Megahey has reviewed the UK Region 2 release of Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown. The experimental Austrian film director’s first French language film was an official French entry for the Cannes Film Festival in 2000.

Michael Haneke doesn’t make films to entertain you. Nor, in Code Unknown, does he make a film with a conventional narrative structure or plot. Michael Haneke makes films to make you think. As with most good films, you are expected to give something to the film yourself and not just accept pre-fabricated stories and images. Michael Haneke expects most of the film to go on in your head rather than on the screen. It’s an interesting conceit that effectively makes a film ‘critic-proof’ – anyone who didn’t enjoy the film just didn’t put enough effort into it. The question with Code Unknown is whether there is really enough going on here on the screen to give you something to think about.

Well, there’s not much in the plot to think about – there are no labyrinthine complexities here to unravel. Instead, there is a central incident at the beginning of the film, a scuffle on a Parisian boulevard, that links the various personages of the film – a French actress, a Romanian beggar, a family of African immigrants – and the rest of the film is made up of scenes depicting their lives – some incidents of note and others apparently inconsequential.

Neither is it the structure of the film that Haneke wants us to note. In an attempt to eliminate any manipulation of time or impose any reading on the material through clever montage, the director elects to show the film as a series of single un-edited takes of varying length. The aim is to keep the narrative structure unobtrusive. Scenes often end abruptly or are separated by a black screen, lest you think, heaven forbid, that the director is trying to make some kind of point by the juxtaposition of scenes.

Nor is Code Unknown an exercise in cinematography. “Beautiful pictures are for the museum and have no place in a realist film”, Haneke says in the accompanying ‘Making Of’. He uses scenes of Juliette Binoche acting in a film within a film to show how easy it is for the cinema to manipulate the viewer.

What Code Unknown is, is a piece of cinéma vérité – an essay rather than a story, an exercise in ‘models of realism’. It’s an examination of the multicultural societies of the metropolises that we live in – it’s Paris in this film, but it could easily be any major European city – and the associated difficulties we have interacting and communicating with one another – hence the “code unknown” of the title – because of differences in appearance, age, social or ethnic status.

With his first French film, Haneke takes further techniques developed in The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and Funny Games, showing the cracks in society and the underlying violence just below the surface. However, it most closely resembles, and in many respects is almost a remake of, Haneke’s 1994 film 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance, the subtitle of this film (Récit incomplet de divers voyages – “An incomplete telling of several journeys”) further confirming this impression. Here, Haneke takes this fragmented, distanced technique further, presenting scenes without any editing and trying to let as little directorial influence impinge on the scenes as possible, leaving them ambiguous and open to interpretation. Consequently the film suffers in the same way as 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance, actually alerting the viewer to the structural mechanics of the process, rather than making them invisible and, contrary to its professed intentions, it actually comes across as instructive and didactic. On the other hand, it has many of the benefits of this approach as well, presenting powerful scenes that take on tremendous force in a disquieting manner through the inexplicable randomness of its events and their accumulative consequences.

PictureThe picture quality on the Artificial Eye DVD release is quite good. Filmed quite naturalistically, the image isn’t quite sharp and can appear grainy in places. Apart from one or two thin scratch lines on the print at the start of the film, I didn’t see any other problems with the 1.85:1 anamorphic print. A port in all other respects of the French MK2 edition, the English subtitles which were optional on the MK2 release are fixed here, with a larger, more unsightly font. One family scene with three simultaneous conversations going on in three different languages (French, African and sign-language) must have been a nightmare for the person doing the English subtitles.

SoundUnlike the French release of the film which has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, the UK release only has a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. The 5.1 mix is hardly edssential – in line with the director’s principle of making the film-making process as unobtrusive as possible, very little use is made of surround sound and the majority of the soundtrack is fixed resolutely on the centre speaker. The Artificial Eye release broadens this slightly with the 2.0 mix, but it’s not a significant difference for a flim like this.

ExtrasIn keeping with the style of the film, the Trailer (2:55) show three single shot scenes rather than a traditional montage. The Making Of Documentary (27:24) is pretty much essential to the understanding of Haneke’s themes and working processes. There is also an Introduction with Michael Haneke (4:27) where the director is quite open about his themes and ideas and about the impossibility of capturing ‘reality’ on film. Filming the boulevard scenes (11:28) I found to be only of minor interest. The director leads us through the impressive opening 10 minute tracking shot, and speaks about the positioning of the buildings, shops and metro stations and choosing and adapting the right location to the script. It is clear that the sequence was very carefully planned and executed. The remaining extra features are text only – a Juliette Binoche Filmography, a Michael Haneke Filmography and a Director’s Statement, where Haneke again lays out his aims as a filmmaker.

OverallThere are some brilliant sequences and tracking shots in Code Unknown – the opening shot on the Boulevard St Germain, a scene on the Paris metro – and some excellent performances by the cast, notably Juliette Binoche. But the idea that you need to think more about what goes on off-screen rather than on-screen just doesn’t cut it and the film comes across as more than a little pretentious, not really adding anything to the ideas and techniques the director has explored in earlier films. In its attempt to stimulate the mind it seems to have abandoned any heart or soul and we are left with a cold and curiously unengaging experience.


Updated: Sep 17, 2001

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