Home Video Hovel: Code Unknown, by David Bax
There is perhaps no director as antagonistic toward his audience as Michael Haneke. He’s a provocateur who shakes his head disdainfully at how easily you are provoked and why. Unlike a more explicitly outrageous filmmaker like John Waters, Haneke’s sets as his targets the exact type of bourgeois, cultured, urbanites who are most likely to see his movies. With Code Unknown, he examines how a type of person like the one I’ve just described, who defines her or himself as a liberal and egalitarian, still possesses a pack mentality that makes her or him more loyal and protective of her or his own than the lowly outsiders for whom he or she claims to have such compassion.
There’s not much plot to speak of. Instead the movie unfolds as a series of vignettes detailing the lives of a loosely connected and ever-expanding group of characters. In the beginning there are four characters: Two French folks (Juliette Binoche and Alexandre Hamidi), a Romanian immigrant (Luminita Gheorghiu) and a Malian immigrant (Ona Lu Yenke). After an incident on a city street brings them clashing together, the film follows them and others in their social circles.
Each vignette consists mainly of one long take. Often, the frame is in motion, following the characters around rooms or through streets with handheld immediacy. In many other cases, though, they are static shot detailing daily lives, reminiscent of Jeanne Dielmann. A farmer laying down soil, two men eating beets, a woman ironing; these ostensibly blase shots take on an increasing tension.
Partly, that tension comes from the fact that we never know when the shots are going to end. They simply stop, just the way we’ve seen happen when Binoche’s character, an actress, is on set and the director calls cut. Having the “real” scenes behave the same way the “movie” scenes do enables Haneke to blur the line between real and fake. He uses this tactic to disturbing effect in one scene, when Binoche’s Anne is rehearsing lines for the director’s video camera. We only see what the camera sees and the director’s voice is a chilling monotone bouncing dialogue back at Anne. It’s hard to tell when or if the rehearsal ends. Were Haneke ever to attempt a more straightforward psychological horror movie, this scene proves he could do it well.
But back to those long takes of unremarkable things happening. I mentioned a shot of a woman ironing. What I didn’t mention is that it’s one of the most important and fascinating shots in the movie. After a long time where all Anne is doing is picking up, ironing and then folding a succession of shirts while the television plays innocuous commercials, she pauses because she hears something coming from another apartment or perhaps the street. We hear it too. It’s a child’s scream. Or is it just a child laughing? One interpretation would require action, the other would not. Which will she decide she hears? Later in the film, when Anne’s own child is in danger, there is, of course, no hesitation. We all live together on the same planet and we share the same spaces. How well, though, do we really do at treating each other equally? Are those more like us more “equal” than others? Haneke, of course, takes a dim view. He’s a pessimist but he challenges you to rise above his expectations if you think you can.
Special features include interviews with Haneke, an introduction by Haneke, a making-of documentary, an interview with film scholar Roy Grundmann and an essay by Nick James.