Michael Haneke is not one to coddle his audience. Funny Games (1997), a film which felt like a punishment for transgressions we didn’t even know we committed, a slap on the wrist for the bad thoughts we thought, proved that. Haneke gave us what we as cinemagoers wanted to see – Thrills! Violence! Gore! – and then chastised us for wanting it in the first place.
Code Unknown, made three years after Funny Games, is one of the least horrific of Haneke’s films, yet still has that same air of defiance, a knowing superiority on the part of the director that borders on arrogance. His challenge to us is right there in the title. But to make sure we’re in our place from the start – and that means directly below him – he opens his film by acknowledging that we’re probably not going to be able to interpret it correctly anyway.
A young girl stands in front of the camera, before starting to withdraw from it. She recoils and backs away to the wall behind her, crouching down as if in fright of something or someone looming over her. After a minute of this, she stands up again. She’s fine. It turns out she is trying to act out a feeling or a concept to her class at school. Using sign language, they guess what she was trying to portray. ‘Sad?’ No. ‘Imprisoned?’ No. ‘Bad conscience?’ No. ‘Gangster?’ No. No. No. The scene cuts to black, without us finding out what it was she was telling them.
We are that class, then, grasping at words to try to articulate the complexities of the human psyche, as described by the images that Michael Haneke shows us. There is a code to break, but we have to be satisfied that we can only ever believe we’ve broken it. We can never be sure.
This is, of course, part of the allure of Haneke’s work. Much like the films of David Lynch, they engage us because they challenge us, encourage us to make sense of the senseless. Funny Games set the trend, but it was with Caché (2005) that Haneke mastered this, a film which compelled Roger Ebert to publish one of the most widely read ‘decodes’ ever written.
Code Unknown sits neatly between those two films. It is not as graphically violent as either, but it is arranged in such a way that we cannot acquire meaning from its images alone. After the introduction with the deaf children, Haneke moves to the streets of Paris, where Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) witnesses her partner’s younger brother, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), being assaulted by a bystander who takes issue with the way he treats a beggar woman.
This scene, captured with a magnificent, unbroken ten-minute shot, is the bud from which the rest of the film flowers. Jean’s assailant, a young black man called Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), is handled roughly by the police; the beggar is found to be an illegal immigrant and deported to Romania; Anne forgets about the incident until she later sees Amadou on a date in a restaurant.
What leads each of these people to be on that street corner at that exact time? And how are they each affected by the incident? It is a little too simplistic to point to race or social class alone as the reason for which each person is treated the way they are, but after seeing Amadou – who remains calm and polite throughout – manhandled by the police, after it was him that intervened to call Jean on his rude behaviour, it is an instinctive reaction to see the issue as one of colour.
From there, the film shifts between each of these characters, articulating their circumstances both leading up to and resulting from the incident in the street. Unsurprisingly, there is no overt signal to let us know where and when the story is moving to; the timeline itself is a code to crack.
The film’s aesthetic is built on this sense of uncertainty. Already in Benny’s Video (1992) we saw Michael Haneke experimenting with images belonging to the diegesis, and he later used the same method to sinister effect in Caché. It is utilised similarly in Code Unknown on numerous occasions. The most threatening of these instances is a grainy audition tape in which Anne stars. In it, she is locked in a room and told by an unseen man that she is going to die. She moves through various stages of reaction: confusion, disbelief, anger, realisation. At some point, it becomes unclear if her incarceration – and her reaction to it – is part of the act, or if this audition has taken a menacing turn.
It is easy to believe that this could in fact be a real kidnapping. For it to be staged, Anne must be an incredible actress, for her response to the situation seems entirely real. She does not seem to be acting terrified; she is terrified. It is a disorienting layering of reality, where Juliette Binoche’s skill as an actress is subsumed into the character she plays, who we must also believe possesses similar talent. Layers of reality are merged until the edges of each become indistinct: there is ours, where we recognise Juliette Binoche as an actress; the secondary layer, where Anne is the actress, one who has a similar level of ability as Binoche; and there is a tertiary layer, where this kidnapping is not occurring but is part of another fiction within the one told by Code Unknown.
This is the most explicit occasion in the film in which Haneke plays with our sense of reality, but it is not the only one. Elsewhere, newsreel footage is presented first-hand to show us the war-torn countries Anne’s lover Georges (Thierry Neuvic) is away photographing, overlaid with his recitation of his letters home to her. Later, a slideshow of some candid portraits of passengers on the Paris metro are presented to us quite detached from the moment at which Georges captures them. It has the feel of a Chris Marker travelogue.
Unfortunately, it’s not the celebratory essay on multiculturalism that Sans Soleil (1983) is, but a sobering look at the divisions that exist in Western society. It is not a story of cultures being brought together but of them drifting apart. Georges captures his portraits surreptitiously, with a camera hanging from his neck and a shutter remote hidden in a pocket. There is no interaction with his subjects apart from his watchful eye judging a shot, waiting for them to present themselves how he wants them to be captured. What are their stories, these people? Which of them will meet on a Paris street sometime in the future?
Like Georges, most won’t care. Those that witnessed Jean and Amadou tussle in the street will have drifted back into the rhythm of their own lives and forgot about the incident, just like Anne did until that night in the restaurant. But each one of them will have had a different story to tell about that moment, one coloured by their own experiences. Each story would be different and soon the truth becomes another unbreakable code.
Original title: Code Inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyage Country: France, Austria, Romania Language: French, Romanian, Malinka, French Sign Language, English Year: 2000 Director: Michael Haneke Writer: Michael Haneke Starring: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Josef Bierbichler Runtime: 118 minutes