There were some parts of Code Unknown (Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages) the specifics of which I did not understand. Some of these same parts, I think, were intentionally inaccessible. That's okay. Tonally, the film makes perfect sense. Though the title literally refers to an apartment building access code, the title more generally refers to the complex, unintelligible cipher of our emotions. Michael Haneke's film is about the emotional retardation of the present age, an era in which it has become increasingly difficult to understand our own emotions and their consequences and nearly impossible to interpret and respond to the feelings of others. Code Unknown is a complex portrait of various people unable to comprehend that they do not live in a void but within an interconnected society.
Suitably subtitled Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, Code Unknown offers numerous snapshots of the lives of people from around the globe. At the center is an incomparable Juliette Binoche as Anne Laurent, a rising actress whose brother-in-law Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) is a sullen, rebellious teenager. Jean's aging father's dream is that Jean will inherit the family farm, a beautiful and prosperous estate, but though Jean has no dreams of his own and though he needn't continue to run the farm once his father dies, he refuses to cooperate. The father (Josef Bierbichler) bribes him with a motorbike and with soft words, and he quietly excuses himself to the bathroom so that he can cry alone in the dark while flushing the toilet. He does not want the family legacy to cease.
But Jean uses the motorbike to run away and disappear, leaving a terse note that he does not wish to be found. While walking the sidewalks of Paris on a drizzly day, he absentmindedly throws a half-eaten croissant into the lap of a homeless, older woman (Luminita Gheorghiu). Though most passers-by would probably not even notice or care about this rude treatment of a disheveled vagabond, and though the woman scarcely even responds herself--happy just to have food and not surprised at being treated with contempt--an astounded Amdaou (Ona Lu Yenke), a young man of Malian descent, pursues Jean, insisting that he apologize to the woman for his awful behavior. Jean refuses, a scuffle ensues, and the police arrive on scene. Handsome, white Jean is dismissed, black Amadou spends a night in prison, and the homeless woman is deported.
The film delves into the lives of all parties involved. We see Amadou's father, a cab driver, abandon his family to return to Mali. We see one of his fares treat him with entitled annoyance without realizing that the cab driver is a human being facing an emergency. We see Maria, the panhandler, in her native Romania, unable to tell her closest friends and family members that she was destitute in France and did not return of her own free will. We see Jean's father worriedly telling Anne and Anne's husband Georges (Jean's older brother, played by Thierry Neuvic) that Jean has disappeared. Stressed and depressed, he picks at crumbs on the tabletop with his fidgeting hands. When Anne tries to comfort him by placing her hand over his, he abruptly rises and leaves the room. Even when others do reach out to us, we do not know how to respond.
The beautiful, natural, and extremely talented Juliette Binoche is the focal point of the film, and we variously see her in all positions of the emotional divide. We also see her in the only three melodramatically, intensely emotional scenes of the film, three scenes in which she is performing as an actor: first in a thriller film, where she has just found out that she is about to be slowly murdered by a psychopath and responds (very convincingly) with confusion then desperation then tears, second in a stage comedy in which she laughs riotously while revealing her true feelings about a rival, and finally in a romantic drama in which she reacts with fear, tears, and love when her fictional son nearly falls off a twenty-fourth floor balcony. These scenes illustrate what we typically see in art and what we often expect from our own lives and relationships--passion, honesty, argument. The scenes in which Anne is not acting illustrate what we more often get in reality, such as the aforementioned scene where Anne tries to console her father-in-law but is cut off.
In another scene, a neighbor turns to her via an anonymous note for help in protecting a violently abused child. Earlier we witnessed the abuse second-hand. Anne is ironing while watching the television and hears agonized screaming in the distance. She mutes the television, worries over the screaming, but continues ironing. The screaming stops, some moments of silence pass, and Anne turns the volume on the television back up. She continues ironing. When she receives the note, she deliberates with Georges over how to respond to the worrisome note. This conversation turns into an argument; Georges doesn't want to think about the problem since the note wasn't addressed to him, and Anne accuses him of being heartless. In the end, Anne does nothing about the troubling situation, and the child is killed. Anne attends the funeral.
In the film's climax (though to call it a climax implies that the film has a plot, and Code Unknown really doesn't have a narrative-driven structure... when I say climax, I mean the most emotionally powerful scene, which is almost at the end of the film and which is also the last scene with audible dialogue), we see Anne in need of help herself. On the train, she is accosted by a suave Arab teenager (Walid Afkir), who presumes that she is a wealthy, racist, and arrogant bitch and then simultaneously flirts with and verbally assaults her while a friend stands nearby, laughing at the bully's antics. There are several other people on the train, but except for an old woman who disapprovingly looks at the boy and then turns away, nobody says or does anything. Anne remains silent, ignoring the boy as he belittles her, not wanting to acknowledge his rudeness with a response. She rises and walks to another seat, but he follows her. She continues to ignore him as best she can, and finally he sits beside her, silent, normal. The train comes to a stop, the doors open, and he spits on her face at close range. As he bolts out the door, an older Arab man (Maurice Bénichou) trips him. The boy responds with anger, calling the gentleman a fool. The gentleman calmly--though with obvious nervousness--removes his eyeglasses, wordlessly hands them to Anne across the aisle, and rises for a fight, yelling at the boy in Arabic. The boy backs down. The man sits back down and continues staring forward, as before, as though nothing has happened. Anne hands him back his glasses, then wipes her face. The train continues moving, with the boy off-camera, and all is silent. The train comes to another stop, and the boy exits with a loud and frightening threat directed toward the man. Crisis averted, Anne breaks into tears. All she can manage to say is a sob-choked "Merci" to the man who stood up for her, but he does not respond, does not know how to respond, just continues staring forward as people do on a subway.
This genuine and emotionally resonant scene is filmed in one long cut with the camera acting as an inactive eye witness. The point-of-view is that of someone riding the train but refusing to act, just as all of the other passengers witness Anne's dilemma but pretend to remain ignorant. The boy is just a boy and it doesn't take much to put an end to his hatred, yet no one is willing to offer the slightest assistance. They all pass the buck to fate or to more noble heroes. Would we do anything if in the same situation? How much injustice do we see daily that we pretend does not exist? How often do we convince ourselves that we are not the hero-type, that some crises are better left resolved by others? When the gentleman stands up for her, he seemingly does so before he even realizes that he has resolved to do it. Afterward, he remains speechless and uncomprehending, still unable to talk to or even look at the woman he has just saved, unable to share words at a time when words would mean so much.
Code Unknown speaks volumes about the war-torn landscape of our emotions; this review has only scratched the surface, without examining Georges's career as a wartime photographer of atrocities, Amadou's acceptance-seeking white girlfriend, Amadou's superstitious mother, or the deaf children who bookend the film with a guessing game of charades in which they act out complex, enigmatic feelings. One of Michael Haneke's best films, Code Unknown is a rich movie that perfectly captures our current crisis of disconnect.
Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (2000)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Juliette Binoche, Luminita Gheorghiu, Ona Lu Yenke, Thierry Neuvic, Maurice Bénichou)