Year of Release: 2000 Directed by Michael Haneke. Starring Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Josef Bierbichler, Alexandre Hamidi, Ona Lu Yenke, and Luminita Gheorghiu.
Code Unknown is a film that benefits from multiple viewings. While one certainly can appreciate some artistry on a first viewing, the film may seem somewhat cold and disconnected, making the viewer ask: “It was pretty well done, but what was the point? What, if anything, should I have taken away?” Watching the film for a second time not only emphasizes the artistry, making Haneke’s talent more apparent, but it also makes the characters and the story come to life much more strongly, with clear parallels among the interweaving storylines that make much stronger connections to the audience and offer some answers to a viewer’s likely questions.
The complete title of the film is: Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys. The film is composed of short segments that detail fragments of the journeys of eight different characters as their lives intersect at a busy Paris street corner. With one exception, each segment is shot in a single take, and the camera is always placed directly at the characters with no angle. This technique places the viewer into the film, giving him the perspective of another character who must learn about the other characters through careful observation from his one vantage point. On a first viewing, while a fascinating and a brilliant idea, this technique can be frustrating at times as the viewer attempts to absorb all the information being presented on screen. Re-viewing the film, with knowledge of how the stories unfold, makes the technique exhilarating as the viewer learns so much more information from the one view that he has to see.
It could be argued that the events in Code Unknown unfold either in a chronological fashion or in an anachronistic manner. A repeat viewing will probably strengthen the viewer’s initial theory, as he will notice elements that support his first observation. Either way, the film provides snapshots of the journeys and struggles that its characters endure.
At one point in the film, a young boy climbs onto a twenty story ledge in order to retrieve a balloon. He is completely unaware of the danger in which he is placing himself or of the fear and pain he is causing his parents, who quickly come running. The film suggests that people often behave as foolishly as this child. They run about pursuing whatever makes their lives easiest, unaware of the pain that they may cause others who come into their lives.
All the characters frantically rush through their lives, sometimes helping others and sometimes hurting them. It never occurs to them that these people may be experiencing similar emotions and experiences that they have. However, by making the viewer a quiet observer, Haneke allows the viewer to learn and appreciate the similarities. Early in the film one family returns from a funeral, and a funeral features as a monumental event in the story of another character much later in the film. One character makes jokes about losing a passport, but other scenes show characters who struggle to obtain that important object. Two families desperately worry about their sons, who may or may not have become wayward as they enter adolescence.
Towards the end of the film, a large school of deaf children march through the streets loudly playing drums in complete harmony and synchronization, which they have been practicing for some time. This music forms the underscoring for the final ten minutes of the film, and it is the only place in the entire film that utilizes music. This dramatic moment finishes the incomplete tales that have been shown through the course of the film.
The characters’ lives may or may not have come together as well as the children’s music did, but it is at this moment that the most important character, the audience, receives an important revelation. It is subtle enough to be easily missed. One character realizes that a mundane object which he always took for granted and assumed was obvious is no longer the same and is now unknown to him. This thing was also the cause of the first minor conflict depicted in the film. These two scenes, along with the opening and closing children’s charades scenes, double bookend Code Unknown with a reminder that nothing should be assumed or taken for granted.
Content Advisory: A few strong vulgarities, discreet references to possible child abuse, and fleeting gruesome images. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Adults.
Personal Recommendation: A