“I let the audience use their imaginations. Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?” - Ernst Lubitsch
Imagine this scene: A young man is eating a pastry, walking down a fashionable boulevard in Paris. He is lost in his tumultuous thoughts and his black mood. A woman sits on the pavement, begging. She extends her hand towards him and he throws the scrunched up paper bag with the half-eaten pastry in her lap. This is one of the first few scenes at the beginning of Michael Haneke’s 2000 film, “Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages”, translated into English as “Code Unknown: Incomplete Tale of Several Journeys”. This early scene will return to haunt the actors in this drama and it is interwoven with other scenes of a similarly challenging type that tantalisingly shift into a pattern and are then quickly disrupted by scenes that deliberately confound our logic.
“Code Unknown” is a well-crafted film, made by an obviously gifted director, with actors who play with extraordinary talent. Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Josef Bierbichler, Alexandre Hamidi all interact wonderfully and handle each nuance of their character with aplomb. And yet the film is a strangely unsatisfying one; it is a film that frustrates and delights one at the same time. Austrian director Haneke plays with us self-indulgently, refusing to compromise his artistic ideals, unwilling to make any allowances to us, his audience. Yet, that is one of the strengths of the movie.
If one goes into a movie house and expects a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, one will be disappointed with this movie. On first viewing, especially if one is unprepared for it, it may seem like a hodge-podge of images, random threads of disparate stories that occasionally criss-cross, a device that is at risk of becoming cliché. There are stylistic links to: Magnolia (1999), Amores Perros (2000) and Crash (2004), and yet, this movie is set apart from them in that we see only little glimpses of people’s lives, incomplete and shadowy, we have to work hard in order to guess at what is going on, and as far as the end is concerned, be prepared to be let down. This is no ordinary tragedy and definitely not a happy or even hopeful end.
Several themes are explored by the film, including child abuse, illegal immigration, failure of communication, racism, prejudice, morality, homelessness, the generation gap, war, rich vs poor, the dehumanising aspect of modern urban life, lack of responsibility towards one fellow human beings… It is a clever film and one that skillfully manipulates the viewers’ emotions. Several scenes grate on our nerves, others draw out pity from us, in others we feel angry, helpless, repulsed, horrified. Yet, we are also detached and curiously uninvolved by Haneke’s characters. We cannot make up our minds if they are heroes of anti-heroes, protagonists or antagonists. We vacillate unsure of where to place our loyalties. Villains become victims, sacrificers become the sacrifice, situations that seem black or white, become curiously gray as more scenes are revealed to us.
The experience of watching the film for me was similar to experiences I have had sitting on a bus and watching the people getting on and off. Or when I am people-watching in an airport or a train station, or perhaps glimpses of lives as the train rushes past the lit windows of apartment buildings. My vivid imagination connects people and their lives and builds stories with common threads in them, significant stories of universal relevance: The search for love and acceptance, the pursuit of happiness, the need to be understood and appreciated for what one is. Haneke does this with consummate skill and in his choice of scenes, he gives the viewer significant clues to decipher.
This is no escapist flick, no pleasant tale to delight and amuse us. It is dark, confronting, intelligent and challenging. It will make you think and demand from you the viewer an active interaction. It is not a film that you will watch passively. It needs rumination upon and a second viewing that will perhaps leave you with more questions than you had when you first saw it. Perhaps that is what all great art should do, make us ask questions rather than give us answers.