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February 13, 2006

codeunknown.jpg Following last month's Showgirls discussion, it was decided that such blog-a-thons should be regular things. The second round was scheduled for today, and thus you'll be able to spend your pre-Valentine's Day afternoon reading different takes on this month's selected title: Michael Haneke's Code Unknown. Less fun to discuss en masse than Verehoeven's is-it-or-isn't-it-camp classic? Perhaps, but I relished the opportunity for the sole reason that, of Haneke's recent slate of domestically distributed pictures (beginning with Funny Games in 1997), this was the only I'd missed. Now that I've seen it, I feel as if I've found the one missing piece to a puzzle.

La Pianiste was my introduction to his work, but now it's suddenly clear to me how much of an anomaly that film is. It is the sole introspective work from a filmmaker whose gaze is otherwise tunred outward; or, I should say, his films are always introspective, but they examine the societal psyche, rather than that of the individual. Indeed, one of the two overriding themes in Haneke's oveure is a contrast of castes; this could be seen as tantamount to a sensitive but incisive indictment of the bourgoisie, but I think Haneke is too considerate for that sort of generalization.

Caché is perhaps the most overt example of Haneke's social concerns, but Code Unknown is its direct thematic precedent; it is also far more ambitious, and substantially more oblique. The film is an elliptical accumulation of scenes, centered around a handful of characters in France and/or Eastern Europe. Most of these scenes are comprised of extremely long takes that are, in their seeming uneventfulness, as deceptive the final shot in Caché. Others are more dynamic, and serve almost as microcosms of the film as a whole; the most immediately impressive sequence is the lengthy steadicam shot in an upscale restaurant, in which the camera drifts from one table, where a popular actress (Juliette Binoche) is having dinner with friends, to another, where a young black man (Ona Lu Yenke) is trying to impress his white date. Binoche and Yenke met at the beginning of the film, but they do not interact in this scene; they simply exist simultaneously in the same space, holding independent conversations, unconsciously creating an unspeakably tense social dynamic. In Haneke's films, the gray area where classes merge is a dangerous one (as categorically evidenced in Caché).

I mentioned that classism is one of two themes in Haneke's work; the second, as I see it, would be the involvement of the viewer. Haneke is fond of implicating his audience, breaking the fourth wall in unexpected and subtly (or, in the case of Funny Games, explicitly) devious ways; these are films that, in the great postmodernist tradition, have a lot to do with the process of watching them. In Code Unknown, the subjective trickery involves a thriller Binoche's character is starring in, entitled The Collector, a few sequences from which are woven into the film. They last just long enough for us become involved in this new, comparatively pedestrian narrative before Haneke jerks us back out again, forcing us to reassess both the placement of those scenes and our reactions to them in relation to the overall scheme of the film. There is an early videotaped (check) rehearsal of a scene in which Binoche is terrorized (check) by an unseen figure (check); her face fills with terror as she's informed of her impending death, tears fall from her eyes - and then the director stops her to give her some direction. Compare this to the adjacent scene in which Yenke's mother sobs over the mistreatment of her son by the police; there's no resolution for her sorrow, no one to tell her what she's supposed to feel. This disparity in emotion ties into a key decision (or lack thereof) on Binoche's part later in the film involving a little girl living in a neighboring apartment; and this development loops right back to a scene in The Collector involving an endangered child.

Code Unknown is itself a thriller, although the image of Binoche's frozen scream featured on the film's posters and DVD cases might mislead audiences (or even Haneke fans like myself who note its placement between the genuinely shocking Funny Games and La Pianiste) into expecting something more visceral. Instead, the thrills are of a distinctly cerebral kind; the film is so meticulously structured and so evasive of our immediate grasp that the gradual emergence of its purpose is more exciting than any of the scenes we see in The Collector. It is difficult to involve one's self with the characters here, emotionally or otherwise - Haneke's sharp cutting purposely works against our tendency to empathize - but it is impossible not to become caught up in the intellect of the film, and its dialectical structure.

It's worth noting that the lines of reality are very clearly drawn in Code Unknown (something this film shares with La Pianiste and Le Temps Du Loups, both of which, incidentally, keep that fourth wall intact and reject any postmodern narrative trappings), whereas Funny Games and Caché allow the suspension of certain reflexive boundaries (who's been making the videotapes in Caché? I think the answer is in Funny Games). Over the course of these five films, Haneke is constantly revisiting various combinations of themes and narrative and stylistic traits (reading other blog-a-thon entries this morning, I realized that whenever his films revolve around a couple, their names are always Anne and Georges), resulting in a genuinely cohesive - and fascinating - body of work. By the time that last abrupt cut-to-black occurred on the big screen in La Pianiste three years ago, I was hooked on this filmmaker - but I've only just now begun to realize why.

Also worth noting: Code Unknown seems to require at least two viewings, something I wasn't, due to my schedule this weekend, able to give it. Thus, I'm pretty sure I've only scratched the surface of the film, and I'm looking forward to reading the other varying perspectives today, and seeing what I missed.

For the record, Le Temps Du Loups is both my favorite of his films and one of the very best pictures of the decade thus far. Also, has anyone seen his 1997 adaptation of Kafka's The Castle?

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Girish's post, wonderful in and of itself, comes complete with a full run-down of participants in this Blog-A-Thon. Drop him an e-mail if you'd like to participate in next month's round, which will feature the entire body of work of Abel Ferarra...

Posted by David Lowery at February 13, 2006 09:15 AM


What a passionate, great post, David. A breathless, exciting read.

Great point about the fourth wall being intact for the two Isabelle Huppert films. I hadn't thought of it.

I saw The Castle on a double bill with his first film, The Seventh Continent. The latter is absolutely wonderful, in solid contention for his best film (it's all disembodied Bressonian close-ups).
The Kafka was a disappointment to me--it has, it seemed to me, almost none of the director's signature elements. Instead, it is rotely faithful to the text, and left me asking why it had to be made. (It was made for TV and Haneke has distanced himself from it a little bit.)
Of his features, the only one I haven't seen is 71 Fragments.

Posted by: girish at February 13, 2006 08:37 PM

David, the film's intellectual traits struck me immediately, while its social and emotional threads only struck me much later. It wears its formal experimentation on its sleeve, although I sort of see it as Haneke's filtering of various formal experiments that have come before. I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance of class in this film, and how our innate conceptions of class profoundly affect our behavior and the social structures in which we live. The confrontation on the subway between Anne and the Arab teen is as animated by class as much (if not more so) as it is by race. This makes perfect sense given the film's setting, a part of the world known for forms of class stratification it still (in a democratic, industrial world) has not escaped (and I think Haneke once said that Code Unknown could have taken easily taken in place in London).

Posted by: Michael at February 13, 2006 11:37 PM

Girish, where did you see his other films (aside from the double bill of Seventh Continent and The Castle)? There doesn't seem to be a domestic release of anything prior to Funny Games - nor could I find anything on various European sites. That's a shame about The Castle -there I was imagining all the various routes he could take in adapting it!

Michael, those innate concepts of class you mention - the assumptions, the second guessing that accompany them - are certainly at the forefront of the film; I've noticed a lot of people pointing out the focus on communication, which I see as secondary - or resulting from - the class issues (not to say that the film isn't very concerned with communication - the first scene certainly telegraphs that well enough).

I already know Girish's answer to this, but Michael (and anyone else who might feel like answering): do you prefer Code Unknown over Cache? Having only seen each a single time, and having been struck by the similarities between the two, I'm having trouble deciding whether I think one is stronger than the other. I keep leaning towards Code Unknown simply because I don't have a complete grasp of it yet - the elusiveness of its form, and the possibility that, as you mention, the emotional qualities might emerge over multiple viewings - makes me think that it might be the richer of the two.

Posted by: Ghostboy at February 14, 2006 01:39 AM

David, I saw the Haneke double bill plus the other films, at the Toronto Cinematheque--they did a retropsective four or five years ago. It's two hours away, and I travel there usually once a month or so to catch films.

Posted by: girish at February 14, 2006 05:58 AM

David, I have not seen Cache yet (one of those films at the top of my to-see list, and yet I haven't been able to catch it). Code Unknown was my introduction to Haneke, and therefore I couldn't compare it to any of his other films. But I do think it's a meticulously, almost perfectly, constructed film, and the very thing that invites multiple interpretations. I'm currently rethinking the communication angle in the film; I don't think it's as integral as class, but I'm beginning to see the communication thing a bit differently (and I might have a post about this in a day or two) -- the fact that rethinking this film over and over is possible only illustrates the richness of the film.

Posted by: Michael at February 14, 2006 11:39 AM