A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)

Each day, Europe seems to become more frazzled, and consequently Michael Haneke's almost 17-year-old film seems more and more prophetic. It's celebrated for its opening sequence: a nine-minute traveling shot that introduces the key figures in its narrative. The actress Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) finds Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), the younger brother of her lover, Georges (Thierry Neuvic), at her door in Paris. He's hungry, having run away from the farm where he lives with his father (Josef Bierbichler), so she buys him a pastry and gives him the key to her apartment so she can go to an appointment. When he finishes the pastry, Jean, who is a bit of a lout, tosses the empty paper bag into the lap of a homeless panhandler, Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), a Romanian immigrant. Seeing this, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), the son of a cab driver from Mali, orders Jean to apologize. When he refuses, the two get in a fight that's broken up by the police, who then arrest Amadou and Maria, but let the provocateur of the incident, Jean, go. The film then follows the stories of Anne, Jean, Maria, and Amadou, but in a fragmented way: long, disconnected takes that suddenly black out, leaving the viewer to piece together the narrative. It is, in short, a brilliantly maddening film. If I have reservations about it, they have to do with whether such a display of exceptional cinematic technique does service to writer-director Haneke's apparent concern about the disjunctions of European life in an age of immigration and economic globalization. We get to know more about each of the characters, but the effect is aesthetic rather than political, which would seem to be at the heart of Haneke's choice of subject. The performances are uniformly fine, especially by Binoche, who ranges from raw emotion to crisp wit in the film, which depicts both Anne's real life and her work as an actress. We see her acting on the one hand a harrowing scene set in a prison, and on the other an audition for the role of Maria in Twelfth Night, and we long to see Anne/Binoche in both roles.