Ben McCann


A Cannes 2000 winner, Code Unknown is a provocatively complex film that combines a prescient deconstruction of modern urban living with more philosophical meditations on the nature of human existence. The former is made deliberately explicit with the opening nine-minute tracking shot, that not only recalls the cinematic virtuosity of Godard but also acts as a fluid entry-point into the narrative, whilst the latter is constantly lurking under the surface of the film, teased out by Haneke's manipulations.

The film is based on a suddenness. After Anne (Juliette Binoche) gives him the code for her apartment, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) throws a crumpled paper-bag in to the lap of Romanian beggar (Luminita Gheorghiu) and is admonished by a black immigrant teacher (Ona Lu Yenke). This results in a tense violent encounter that sets the scene for the rest of the film - Haneke follows up this initial interchange and maps the connections, near misses and overlapping relationships onto a deliberately deromanticised Paris. Indeed, the City of Lights here is like one big science laboratory where all the various encounters play out. The main protagonists are souls cut adrift, looking for a method of survival, for the 'unknown code' that promises release. On the surface, the title may simply refer to the proliferation of digi-code access points for the Parisian apartments, but its meaning gradually metamorphoses into an apt symbol for the inherent incommunicability of modern life.

In the midst of all this lies the central notion of a failure to communicate, but this is a thesis never explored dryly or heavy-handedly. This is in part due to the sensitivity of the acting (rarely has Binoche's alabaster fragility been used to such alarming effect) but also to Haneke's sly cinematic devices: he has the uncanny ability to charge everyday scenes with menace (witness the brooding sense of isolation and unease on the Metro), but his arresting fades after the end of several scenes hints at a world behind the frame. That much of the film is also shot in real time lends a further duality to the narrative; on the one hand the scenes are full of urgency, on the other, there is a Sphinx-like passivity to the events. As an audience, we watch and then are moved on to the next episode. In this final respect, there is a thematic link with Haneke's remarkable Funny Games (1997), which employed the same techniques with far greater visceral impact.

The film ends frustratingly, and yet that is final coup de th®¶âtre. It feels like an inverted telescope being slowly closed up - the view in the first place was opaque and ambiguous, but then inexorably fades to an enigmatic nothing. As a piece of cerebral film-making, Code Unknown stands head and shoulders above its contemporary imitators. Whereas, say, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999) expertly highlights the travails and complexities of modern urban culture, there was always a element of the deus ex machina expertly pulling all the plot-lines and overlapping narratives into a coherent whole.

Here, Haneke captures the essence of modern life: fractured, impersonal, and deliberately inconsequential. Whether this can be attributed to Haneke's own 'fish-out-of-water' credentials (he is Austrian) is debatable, but his skewed impressions are underlined by the film's subtitle, 'Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys'. Indeed, what better metaphor for 21st century urban living?