Code Unknown / Code Inconnu

Stephen Nottingham


Human ecology pervades Code Unknown (Code Inconnu). A loose network of threads connects everything contained within the film. The subtitle, Incomplete takes of several journeys (Recit incomplet de divers voyages), hints at the fragmentary nature of the narrative, which focuses on the experiences of a disparate group of individuals. By putting together these fragments, a holistic picture of life in a modern European city in a globalized age emerges. It is set in Paris, but it could be London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, or any major European city. The film's characters interact via a series of chance encounters. There is randomness and chaos underlying everyday human interactions. But is there a code to help us understand this ecology?

Michael Haneke embarked on this project with a set of philosophical questions and constructed the film in part as a way of exploring them. He asks, for instance, "Is truth the sum of what we see and hear?", "Can reality be represented?" and "Is that which is on-camera more precise than that which is off?". This is therefore a film where what is omitted may be as important as what is portrayed. Haneke frames his forty-odd narrative fragments with a prologue and an epilogue featuring deaf-mute children acting out emotions. Like an audience watching actors on a screen, their classmates try to interpret the mimes. In the prologue, a young girl acts out her fears. The children sign "alone, hiding place, sad, imprisoned", but cannot interpret the complex emotions being represented. It is hard for them to decode what they see.

We first enter the Parisian streets at the start of a nine-minute tracking shot of great virtuosity, which introduces most of the main characters and leads up to the first key incident. Anne (Juliette Binoche) leaves her apartment block and finds Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), the younger teenage brother of her boyfriend, waiting for her outside. He does not have the new entry code to her apartment. They walk for a while along the Boulevard St. Germain. Anne buys Jean some food from a bakery and gives him the code to her apartment (48B13: arbitrary, although instinctively read for significance), after finding out that he has run away from his father's farm. While walking back to the apartment, he thoughtlessly throws down his paper bag into the lap of a middle-aged woman - Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu) - who is begging. As Jean walks away, a young African man, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke) challenges Jean and tells him to apologise. Jean refuses and a scuffle ensues. Anne returns and sides with Jean. The police arrive and arrest Amadou and Maria. In a subsequent piece to camera by his mother, we learn that Amadou has been mistreated by racist police officers while in custody. Meanwhile, Maria is deported to her home country of Romania, when it is discovered that she is an illegal immigrant.

The mobile camera of the first street scene cuts to a montage of stills, depicting war atrocities in Kosovo. They have been taken by George (Thierry Neuvic), Anne's boyfriend, who is a photo-journalist. In a correspondance with a colleague, they talk about capturing the "ecology of the image". He strives to make images of irrational behaviour in order that they can be understood in terms of human ecology. The perception of this war in Western Europe, fought on the doorstep of the European Union (EC), is conditioned by such photographs. What is not captured in images does not enter the collective consciousness to nearly the same extent. Men with broken bodies look imploringly at the camera. In a dispatch to Anne, we learn that a weary George will shortly be returning to Paris.

Maria is shown being accompanied to a plane by armed guards, and then being reunited with her extended family in Romania. They have a small half-buily house, set amongst widespread poverty. Maria relates her shame at begging in Paris, although the money she has sent back has benefited her family. She tells of once giving money to a gypsy and feeling compelled to wash her hands afterwards, and how a well-dressed man in Paris, about to give her money, threw the note into her lap rather than touch her outstretched hand. Begging is commonplace in European cities. It is an interaction that encapsulates the inequalities within society. Those who wish to help relieve this inequality face a daily dilemma of whether to help beggars. Who is most deserving? What is the code of behaviour? One measure of society is how it treats its immigrants and other disadvantaged groups. Some political parties in Europe have practically based their campaigns on being tough on such groups, creating an air of hostility toward them and their children. Maria later pays to be illegally smuggled back into France. She resumes begging on the streets. Another immigrant occupies her previous spot. She tries elsewhere, but is harassed by shopkeepers and groups of other ethic minorities. Her future does not look bright.

Amadou (the son of West African refuges) is the teacher of the deaf-mute children encountered in the prologue. We are party to brief glimpses of his large family in their colourful but cramped apartment. He specialises in music, and is next encountered teaching a Brazilian drumming seminar. This sets up an insistent rhythm that will reappear as an extended crescendo in the final street scene. All the sound and music in Code Unknown is diegetic: it issues from within the story space. Buskers and street noises, televisions and sounds from neighbouring apartments, and community drumming provide the soundtrack to this film.

Things sometimes run backwards in Code Unknown, most obviously in the film within a film. Anne is a film actress, who is making a thriller called The Collector (seemingly a French remake of William Wyler's 1965 film of John Fowles' novel of that name). It is to be her first starring role. Anne is held captive within a soundproof room, pleading for mercy to her unseen assailant and interrogator. To camera, she acts terror, fear and a myriad of subtle and distressing emotions. Filmed in low-resolution video, this scene is particularly disconcerting because we (the audience) only gradually realise that Anne is acting. She is told that she is going to die like an insect, when the sealed room is turned into a gas chamber, but it is not clear whether a psychopath is telling her this or a demanding film director striving for effect. Binoche is superb in this film, but no more so than in close-up within these "acting" sequences. By doing her most convincing and naturalistic acting in these scenes, she allows the director to blur the levels of reality to great effect. Later (earlier) Anne is being shown around the apartment by a shady estate agent, who may be the psychopath. Then, later (earlier) still, in a luxurious twenty-floor apartment, Anne is swimming in a large pool watched by her husband. Suddenly they notice their son, a fearless toddler, climbing onto the edge of the building. Here, Binoche emits an iconic silent scream; mouth wide open, helpless in the water. This scream is silent because it is being overdubbed in the studio. The boy is rescued, but Anne's character decides they must leave this apartment for one on a ground floor. This will turn out to be the cell already encountered. The acting motif is a search for authenticity. What is it to act authentically? The philosophical ramifications of this enquiry seep through the frames of this film as its series of startling scenes accumulate.

The métro plays a key role in Code Unknown. Having returned to Paris, George takes a photo-assignment on the underground transport system. With a camera on his chest and a remote control in his pocket, he aims to be a dispassionate observer of the city's inhabitants. We share the commuter's discomfort at being photographed in this way. Later in the film, there is a black and white montage of extraordinary portraits (actually the work of war photographer Luc Delahaye). The people look anxious. It is a study of urban alienation. But what role has the photographer played? Can images capture reality? Does the photographer (filmmaker) modify the human ecology and inevitably affect the truth as seen by the viewer?

Anne takes the métro home, after a day's arduous filming, toward the end of the film. She is taunted by an Arab youth, who mocks her privilege and spits in her face. A middle-aged Arab man challenges the youth and tells him that he should be ashamed. The youth's lack of regret mirrors Jean's earlier refusal to apologise to Maria. Anne is shaken by the scene and cannot comprehend the insulting behaviour of the youth. She is already unsettled by a recent row with George in a supermarket, concerning his lack of commitment, and walks home crying in the rain. George arrives at the apartment later, but finds the code has changed (possibly to keep Jean out). George no longer has the motivation to find the code and walks away.

Code Unknown suggests that our experiences often cannot be comprehended. A number of other subplots provide variations on its central theme. These involve, for example, Jean and George's farmer father (who kills his cows in a scene which can be read as how a globalized economy he does not understand is making his living unviable), Amadou's treatment of his girlfriend, and Anne's neighbours and their possibly abused child (should she intervene?). Many questions are asked, but few are resolved. Haneke uses an oblique strategy and eschews conventional film codes. Film structure that involves exposition, development and resolution, for instance, is considered inadequate for exploring these issues. If the code is unknown in life, why supply it in a representation of real-life? Mainstream cinema that claims to show reality as a whole is merely being deceptive. Haneke uses a range of cinematic devices, including static shots, mobile hand-held camera shots, montages of stills, creative use of off-screen space, and changes in film quality. A series of snapshot" scenes are set within two long long tracking shots on the Boulevard St. Germain. The film is punctuated by sudden cuts to black, which abruptly end scenes as if a TV transmission has suddenly cut out. The breadth of its technique mirrors its striving for different ways to find answers to its puzzles. There are no easy answers for the film's characters, however, and Haneke refuses to supply a key to a simplistic understanding of their behaviour.

Conspiracy theorists invoke circles of powerful men, such as the Bilderberg group, who secretly plot world affairs. The truth is probably more frightening. The geopolitical network of trade and interactions is so complex that it is governed by its own chaotic set of rules. No one is in charge and everyone in power acts reactively rather than proactively. The code is unknown. This is the background against which we must order our personal affairs and interact with strangers.

Peter Haneke's deeply moral film has established him as one of Europe's foremost directors. His reputation has since been consolidated by The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste). He is a worthy successor, for instance, to Kieslowski. This connection is made obvious in Code Unknown by the presence of Juliette Binoche, who helped initiate the project and who gives probably her best performance since Three Colours: Blue (a welcome confirmation that she is still Europe's most accomplished film actress, after her appearance in one too many sugary confections).

By its nature, Code Unknown is a difficult film. Unfashionably, it is a film made for repeated viewing. Its multi-perspective collage of modern Europe is open-ended and more disturbing than entertaining. The audience cannot just sit passively, but must try to decode what it sees. Code Unknown can be approached as an anthropological study. It suggests that society is built on inequality and a lack of communication between people, both at an individual and social level. It asks what responsibility we have toward others. Each fragment of the film is true to life and encapsulates an area of common experience. It's relevant, honest, serious, challenging and powerful, and it bodes well for European arthouse cinema at the start of the twentieth first century.

© Copyright Stephen Nottingham, 2001.