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Code: Unknown (Michael Haneke) 2001

    In a little over fifty, mostly single-shot, scenes Michael Haneke’s Code: Unknown manages to establish a stunningly encompassing treatise on the way that we either create or see a “false face” so that we may avoid truly relating to others. The false face that is created might take the form of exercising prejudice against others or by lessening one’s own feelings toward another in order to avoid confrontation.  That description may sound somewhat didactic, but the film has an exceptional emotional immediacy that makes the turgid-sounding subject matter exceptionally engaging. Few of the characters in the film actually talk about the subject at hand, and the film lets their actions define their feelings on such rarely talked about issues as racism, homelessness, and child abuse. Time and again, Haneke presents a situation that provokes an audience reaction, and then turns that reaction on its head as we gain more knowledge of the events surrounding us. For example, near the beginning of the film, a young man is accosted by an African immigrant after he casually tosses his litter into the lap of a begging vagrant. The African’s violent response, though probably “right”, feels far too extreme considering the crime. It’s only once we come to understand his background, and the consistent brushing off that he gets from society, that we can understand what provoked his response. This is the film’s game at its simplest level, and it continues to branch out in scope and complexity, following each character involved in this event, showing us their family life and political viewpoints, with each scene forcing us to revaluate our appraisal of them.   

    Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a somewhat non-confrontational actress, whose inner turmoil becomes the film’s center stage. The film is subtitled with a header that claims it presents “Incomplete tales of several journeys”, and although it does have a few straggling narrative ends, Anne’s character arc is decidedly complete and immensely satisfying. Her initial standoffishness is put to the test as her personal relationships, professional life, and random encounters with strangers seem to conspire in an attempt to harden her attitude toward the world. Binoche’s performance is stunning, and her exceptional use of her body language and facial gestures makes Anne’s every thought a physical reality. It’s probably the year’s best, period. At a pivotal moment, after she has begun to realize that her façade of happiness is somewhat transparent to her boyfriend, she is placed nervously alone and unguarded on a stage, and asks the seemingly empty audience, “Is there anybody out there?” Rare is the film that is so acutely aware of the lie of life that an actor must create and the simultaneous vulnerability to and distance from the world that that distance constructs. When Haneke shatters the fourth wall here, as he famously did in his wonderful Funny Games, it is only to make us more aware of the inability of a film to truly answer the questions that he is posing.   

    It’s to Haneke’s credit, then, that Code: Unknown isn’t pompous enough to attempt to solve the issues that it raises. It’s not so much a macro-political film as a micro-political one. It doesn’t proffer solutions, but instead causes individual viewers to examine their own responses and assumptions as they shift during the film’s running time. One could argue that the film is cynical enough to endorse prejudice, but I would counter that it is not endorsing the behavior in it so much as showing us how such bigotry is cultivated. Haneke’s film disarms much possible criticism by refusing to slide into preachy moralizing. Code: Unknown doesn’t create narrow-mindedness, but instead, uses it as a topic to illustrate just how brilliantly broad-minded filmmaking can be. 

**** Masterpiece


Jeremy Heilman