Following Last

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?

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…