Similar to 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance and its fractured storytelling, Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys is another “mosaic narrative.
Jean tries to escape the inevitability of his mundane farm life, so he runs away to Paris to live with his older brother Georges. Georges, a photojournalist, is away covering the war in Kosovo, so Jean runs into Georges’ girlfriend Anne (Laurent, of course), an actress running late for an audition. Jean and Anne talk a while as they walk the street, with Anne gently telling Jean that he won’t be able to stay with them. Dejected, he tosses a balled up piece of paper at a beggar woman, Maria. Another teen, Amadou, confronts Jean about his thoughtlessness and they get into a fight on the street. The police arrive, arrest the two youths and deport Maria.
This is about the only solid thing in the film, which then proceeds to capture different parts of each characters’ life, and while it can be seen how the incident on the street colours the later events of the film, it’s not really the central focus of the film, except that each of these characters has somehow intersected with the others.
The unknown code of the title is almost certainly how the viewer is meant to decode the messages of the film. Never one to shy away from making a challenge for the audience, there’s almost no use of convention or easy access into the story; on my first viewing, I dismissed it as completely irrelevant.
It’s a film that demands attention though, and almost exists to have your own meanings drawn on to it, before you change your mind entirely and approach it a new way. The film is bookended with scenes of deaf children trying to communicate with their class – in both instances, the kids guessing what the one up the front is trying to say haven’t been able to figure it out.
This isn’t to say that the film is a redundant waste of communication. It can be quite intriguing to watch it again, trying to interpolate new meanings and significance to the different events that unfold within the film. Doing so demands more time and attention than most people give to a film, but Haneke has clearly not meant this as a neatly-wrapped-up-in-a-single-viewing experience.
Consider the character of Amadou. When he’s introduced, he’s seemingly the noble-and-sensitive teenage character. He’s an immigrant, and it’s made clear that the police beat and shame him, whereas they just release Jean post-arrest. This sets up a conventional read of the character as ultimately sympathetic, but then the next time we see him, he’s arrogant and rude on a date with a girl, acting smugger than smug. So the question is asked – do the two scenes rule each other out? Is he acting naturally in one and putting on a show in the other? If so, which is which? Is it as simple as saying that Haneke intends a multi-faceted reading of the character? Are we in fact meant to consider that Amadou is multi-faceted, or are we meant to make clear decisions at all?
Depending on the mood in which you watch the film, you’ll think one thing. When you decide to view it again in another way, the experience of the film changes. These are the codes different viewers bring to their interpretations. It’s not so much that the film is a slice of life, as it is that different lived bring different contexts to any situation. To quote Nietzsche, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”
Performance-wise, the film is solid. Everyone brings something different to the table, and it may be a bias brought on by “most-recognisable-face-in-the-movie” syndrome, but Juliette Binoche as Anne is astounding. Anne is easily the best character to reinterpret on multiple viewings, and her work is very intricate without ever being obvious. She’s surrounded in a sense of vulnerability; one of her early scenes shows her auditioning for a role as a serial killer’s latest victim, and the film treads a clever line between parody and menace – the scene is unsettling and threatening, even though it’s ostensibly just an audition. Later on, she’s harassed by two obnoxious teens on the subway, and although she tries to keep her calm throughout the ordeal, we see her break at the point she has to thank another passenger for standing up for her.
The other performers are all more than adequate, although I feel the need to single out Luminita Gheorghiu as Maria for bringing the emotional heart to the film, and in a very rare instance for Haneke, portraying a character the audience feels compelled to sympathise with.
Code Unknown is a frustrating film when you’re looking for an easy answer, but a fascinating film to revisit with your own interpretations. I’m glad I forced myself to watch it again, because it really holds something unique on repeat viewings.