Reviews of Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys
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It is extremely difficult to compose a synopsis of Code Unknown. This is not only because of the film’s unconventional narrative structure that interweaves many different stories contained within it, but more importantly, because of the director’s preoccupation with detail and fragment. As the synopsis is a recounting of the main turning points in the story and a marketing tool that should attract potential audience, to simply follow that recipe would grossly undermine the film’s impact. We would have to disregard the complex form of the film and focus merely on its content: unglamorous brief excerpts from the everyday lives of Paris’ inhabitants. If we were to add the film’s thematic scope of communication breakdown, alienation of an individual in the consumerism society and its emotional coldness, racial and class stereotypes etc. that would be enough to discourage filmgoers from this socio-didactic movie experience, coming from the director notoriously named as a bearded prophet. Indeed an attempt to outline the story of Code Unknown risks lapsing into clichéd formulas of social stereotype.
A synopsis is always to some extent a generalisation about the film, which would not do justice to Code Unknown. It is exactly the opposite of Haneke’s aim – to challenge the unifying force of a narrative. Indeed if we think even of a plot itself the goal here is to order the events and structure them around one or more subordinating elements. Haneke is concerned with these modes of representation and its perception that create the illusion of wholeness and the effect of the real in the cinema. One of the questions that he released together with the press kit for the film asks: Is the fragment the aesthetic response to the incomplete nature of our perception? He implies that our perception is incomplete, therefore imperfect as we tend to organise our experience of reality into closed and neat statements. Knowledge we gain is put by us into definitions and terms, closed units that unify and homogenise the phenomena that we happen to experience. By this comforting practice we achieve a feeling of completion and harmony. It is especially true of the typically mainstream cinema films, which normally would lead our attention to all necessary information that enable us to read the narrative. Haneke, “instead of establishing the viewer as an all-seeing subject, demands that the viewer provide additional information, thereby not just negating, but indeed reversing the much-lampooned “Hollywood rule of three,” according to which information vital to the plot has to be explained three times (…)”
Code Unknown follows thus its own pattern and was constructed in a rather unconventional way so as to amplify the tension between the effect of the real and the artificiality of filmic spectacle. This essay will examine the narrative structure of Code Unknown trying to answer the question what are exactly the director’s methods of engaging (as well as disengaging) the audience of his film and what purpose does it serve?
Code Unknown is a multiple protagonist film. Its narrative structure is the closest to the Tandem Narrative definition, in which equally important stories are running parallel. This is usually didactic and socio-political tale as it spans a wide section of social classes. The film’s subtitle: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys already invokes its narrative structure comprised of multiple sub-narratives. As the most experimental of Haneke’s films, it is reminiscent of Austrian 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) in which, similarly, one event brings together the film’s distant characters and their stories but, unlike in Code Unknown, it happens at the end of the narrative. It looks like that particular model for a narrative structure has become widely popular over the recent years with films like Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Amores Perros (2000) and Babel (2006) or the American Traffic (2000), Syriana (2005) and the Oscar winner Crash (2004).
The film consists of 39 fragments plus a prologue and an epilogue interrupted by short black frame inserts. The scenes are shot in one continuous take – the main body of the narrative, apart from two photomontages attributed to George and two excerpts from a mainstream thriller, in which Anne acts – a film-in-a-film strand.
Following the prologue, in the first scene of the film that serves as an exposition, we are introduced to all the main characters. The opening shot is framed statically on the frosted glass doors (to which the code is unknown) until we see Anne (Juliette Binoche) coming out to the street as the camera tracks her simultaneously. As we walk together with Anne and Jean the whole span of tracking shot we have the opportunity to admire the intricate mise-en-scène. Starting with Binoche as a French bourgeoisie par excellence leaving her security code guarded apartment we pass the flower stand, patisserie Viennoiserie and two small shopping mall passages. That all-too-common settings of the film which look like any busy street in central Paris is in fact a nearly studio precision construct in a real locale. The patisserie, for instance, was transformed from a carpet shop, which brings to mind a special significance of its Viennese character. It indicates the bourgeois preference for the finest things and hints at the Austrian roots of the director, who is renown for his penchant of marking his presence as an authorial instance within his film.
It is the Viennoiserie pastry paper bag that resumes the action and triggers the ignition point, bringing about a moment of confrontation between people of different backgrounds and classes. When Jean drops the bag in the beggar’s lap he does so out of annoyance caused by his current situation more than contempt. In fact it is hard to find the justification for this indecent deed and any such attempt would be merely a speculation. What becomes apparent in the rethinking of that scene in retrospect is the similarities between characters’ tales – the common intersection points at the path of their journeys. In this example – both Maria and Jean are unwelcome in Paris.
That all happens in a one long take with deep focus staging and a wide angle lens, which lasts for eight minutes and ten seconds. To orchestrate the whole action in such a smooth and seamless way is a cinematic feat which attracts attention to itself. The multiple protagonist strategy for the narrative does not guarantee following a simple formula of multiple clashing points of view. The first striking formal feature of the film are no independent camera movements. The camera always accompanies protagonists but does not favour any of them. As close as the camera frames is a medium shot. It avoids consistently any close ups and prefers two shots or would rather have a group of people within the frame than only one person. That places the audience in a position, which makes it impossible to identify with any of the characters.
The narrative’s main devices are utilised in such a way so as to challenge the viewer’s sense of stereotype. Haneke forces the audience to provide its own frame of reference. We are presented with an ultra realistic, slice-of-life, mundane events familiar to most inhabitants of any European metropolis which is the potential audience at the same time. The restricted point of view and the decision to structure the plot with an aid of long uninterrupted takes amplifies the effect of the real. It is a real time event unfolding equally with the screen time in front of the audience without any necessity for visual clues that could be created otherwise by editing. In that way the film is deprived of manipulation with time – there is no compression of time typical for the montage-heavy mainstream cinema.
That is probably the reason why all readings of the film (including this one) are slightly different in details recounting the plot, as even the critics, trying to fill the gaps with meaning, are caught up in limitation of language and involuntary expose themselves with their mindsets and preconceptions they must have about the represented by film reality. The final scene in which Maria is displaced from her begging spot by organised gang was read by Brigitte Peucker as her being approached by two Arabs whereas for Oliver C. Speck they were “Eastern European-looking man and boy”
That scene takes place in exactly the same location as the opening one, marking the film’s promise of a closure, which is not fulfilled as the particular stories of the characters remain unresolved. To be precise the thirty-ninth fragment is not strictly speaking one entity. There are in fact three fragments – three long takes merged together by the use of nonsimultaneous diegetic music – a sound flashback from a scene placed one-third through the film in which Amadou conducts an orchestra of mute-deaf children playing on drums. Each take focuses on different character: Maria is bereft her begging spot and she walks aimlessly through the boulevard, Anne returns to her apartment, George returns after some time as it started raining – but similarly as Jean in the the first scene cannot access the apartment as the code has been changed again. (As we piece together facts it stands to reason that Anne is insecure and changes the code as in the previous high-tension scene located in the underground Anne is harassed by a young Arab.)
The finale scene is the only which uses music laid over the image as tough it would be non-diegetic. All the other scenes include only diegetic sound and if there are any sound effects they are used sparingly or are barely audible. However as noted by Peucker “(…)Haneke also introduces into the film Godardian sound-edits which overlap sequential scenes.” It creates an effect of spatial and temporal continuity to what otherwise could work effectively in isolation as short films.
When the opening long tracking shot ends abruptly the whole screen turns black for a moment. All of a sudden we hear a male voiceover continuing his commentary on a current situation in Kosovo while the photographs presenting war atrocities change at rhythmic intervals. In that way we are introduced to George – Anne’s boyfriend and Jean’s brother, which becomes apparent only by the end of the photomontage sequence. He does not feature in any of the photographs as he is the photographer. That is the way we get to know him: only by his voice, distant and hiding himself behind the lens of his camera. The photomontage sequence is the first out of the two in the film and occurring after the opening scene bewilders the audience.
Perplexing as it is the audience is forced to connect the facts. In the first fragment we hear about George, in the second one we hear him. That is one of the director’s technique to provide the information for plot reconstruction – by addressing aural sensitivity of the spectator. Only half an hour into the film are we to see George for the first time.
Anne should be seen as the main protagonist, judging by the length of screen time she is allowed and also the marketing strategy of the film, which billed Binoche’s character as a driving force of the story. Star and the persona Binoche brought into Code Unknown not only lured the audience into the cinemas but also created emotional engagement. Binoche represents a certain kind of an actress – she is associated with certain roles (from which she is known). That makes her likeable from the start of the film.
At the opposite pole are the characters of two nameless fathers: Amadou’s father and George and Jean’s father. Amadou’s father appears after the photomontage sequence in a static frame fixed on him while driving his cab. As he receives the call about Amadou’s trouble the scene accelerates action and with pressing urgency pushes the story forward. Being distracted by the photomontage, which has a loose relationship with film diegesis, this scene picks up where we were left before. In fact that was one of the active questions raised by the opening scene – what were the consequences of the scuffle?
“In Haneke, emotions are a sign that life has become completely reified as they become visible in characters who cannot deal with feelings unless they are in commodified form.” This is most pronounced in the film-within-a-film scene, which starts off as an audition. The camera is fixed on Anne’s face and we know that she is about to act. The not-so-obvious sign of these scene as a starting point for the new strand of film-within-a-film sub-narrative is poorer quality digital video image and the blatant use of zoom. There is however ambiguity as to where this image belongs on a diegetic level as it is also one unedited take and the video aesthetics evokes para-documentary style footage, which heightens the effect of the real.
Moreover, by aligning the gaze of the camera together with gaze of the spectator and the use of off-screen diegetic voice (which belongs presumably to the diegetic film-within-a-film director), we – as an audience, become uncomfortably alert to the fact that somebody is watching together with us. As we wonder who is the owner of the gaze we are becoming increasingly aware of our spectatorship status. We, as the spectators, are implicated within the scene, which does not as much depicts violence as it is in itself extremely violent. “What Haneke achieves through his aesthetics of aggression and the unpleasureable feelings that it gives rise to, is to position the spectator as the film’s real protagonist: the narrative content of the film becomes significant only in relation to the viewer’s situation.”
It creates a powerful effect coupled with the highly charged performance of Binoche. An actress playing an actress: Binoche plays Anne, Anne plays the thriller’s heroine. There is a double-layered intra/extra diegetic game being played here enhanced by realistic style performance that should not take place in a film-within-a-film. As the tension of the scene hits its climax and Anne’s character realises that she will die unless she fulfils the incomprehensible wish of her oppressor it is as though the orders were uttered to Anne directly: “Show me your true face. (…) Not your lies nor your tricks. A true expression.” She does not understand and asks shouting utterly at a loss – “What do I have to do?” And hears the answers “Be spontaneous. React to what’s happening.” It is exactly the same lack of understanding with which Anne leads her life. She does not know: “How?” (to react). She waits with the decisions, hoping that it will be decided for her or maybe someone else will solve the issue. She uses her acting skills to hide her true feelings in her real life and to maintain control over it. The same as George uses his profession to distance himself from his private life.
This scene puts the audience in a wary frame of mind – anything can happen now – what we watch is not really what we think we see. It belongs to the diegesis of the film but it mediates the represented reality through yet another camera. The latter two parts of the film-within-a-film strand are easily identifiable in the very moment of the first use of montage or at least in retrospect. To accentuate the disparity between the two styles of filmmaking: Bazinian realism of long takes with deep focus and the montage-laden mainstream cinema style, the remaining two scenes of film-within-a-film strand use all the standard generic means of expression as shot/reverse-shot, point-of-view and over-the-shoulder shots, dynamic zoom and matching the eye-lines so as to disguise the viewer and create the tension.
The fictionality of film-within-a-film strand and the realism of the main body of the narrative is thus clear. However there is a constant ambivalence created by the interrelation between the two intensified by Binoche’s/Anne’s performance. “Time and again Code Unknown presents us with sequences that promotes confusion between diegetic reality of the film and a performance within it, sequences that promote the spectator’s uncertainty about the status of the image.”
The theme of communication breakdown, this time between generations, is evoked by the scene in which Haneke introduces visually the second nameless father. There is a palpable friction between Jean and his father as they eat supper. Jean is dressed the same as in the opening scene so we deduce that everything that we have seen (up until now) has happened on the same day. After the father finishes he walks out to the dark bathroom and flushes the water so as to hide his subdued emotions – he is about to weep. Nowhere in the film is there filial pity as an answer to it.
The director’s strategy emerges. We are guided through the narrative traditionally with the concern for characters. But rather then being preoccupied with their fate (as we would be if we could identify with them) we are more interested in what will actually happen as the story goes on and being puzzled by the first scene which did not specify who is the good guy and who is the bad one our expectations are driven by the habitual inclination to pigeonhole the characters.
We learn nothing more about the father and son conflict. Furthermore it adds more confusion as there is no conventional development of their characters. They do not converse so there is no presentation of the thinking behind Jean’s doings nor the reasoning why they cannot find a consensus regarding the future of the farm. It renders our inner voice of rationale as speechless as they are.
One thing is certain, Haneke uses a classic technique of raising our expectations in order to misguide the audience once again. As we hear: “Beets. That’s all there is.” we assume that the problem stems from financial predicaments although they cannot be too serious as there is still some money for renovating the barn (we remember that being said in the opening scene). It seems to be a poor explanation as later on in the film Jean receives a motorbike from his father and in addition to this we learn that the farm not only consists of vast area of land but of cattle too. We are constantly activated to revise our judgements about the characters and the story.
Out of this pattern of following the characters that took part in the scuffle we come back to Maria. She is given a very special presence in the film and many critics pointed to her as being the most psychologically developed character. It is once again unexpected. In the first scene she is passive and mute and therefore unimportant – she might be after all only a narrative device, an excuse to kick off the action. It comes to us as a great surprise when, in the subsequent scene, after over a minute of watching passengers embarking on a plane she comes into the frame being escorted by a policeman. What springs to mind is deportation – an unforeseen result contrary to Amadou’s intention. Submissive and defenceless as we may perceive her in Paris it is not the same Maria when later on in the film we see her amongst her family back in Romania. She is certainly a persona of considerable status and this is probably what makes her lie about her life abroad. As with the previous scene “The typical effect of Haneke’s manner of framing is (…) to make us aware of a gap, to force us into a double take, or occasion a retrospective revision of our most basic assumptions.”
The following scene takes us back to Amadou’s parents. It is a statically fixed frame on Amadou’s mother who is obviously distraught by yet another incident. She does not understand why all these misfortunes befall her family adducing the disability of her daughter too. We are discovering more facets to what could be called an “African story” sub-narrative as it is not only Amadou’s tale but that of his whole family.
Haneke’s camera is far more benevolent for Amadou’s parents, Maria, Jean and George’s father – people the least connected with Paris as a city. Either immigrants, temporary inhabitants of no fixed abode or simply outsiders that create an alternative to the urban life. Whether by means of the plot or mise-en-scène there purports to be a distinction between two spheres with characters attached to them: a civilised/technologized/urban sphere of Paris and “elsewhere”, which is undefined, rather shapeless.
It is by the proximity of the camera that this above distinction could be drawn between the characters too – for instance, if Anne and George are generally framed in medium shots Maria receives a special treatment as we see her nearly in a head and shoulders shot – something between medium and a close-up. It is a scene of emotional breakdown as she confides in one of her country fellows confessing the true of her begging on the streets. The camera is more sympathetic with those neglected, displaced or abandoned. It even goes as far as to use over-the-shoulder point-of-view of George and Jean’s father when he reads the note from his son saying that he ran away.
This closeness of the camera is in a stark contrast to the distance at which Anne is framed in one of the scenes inside her apartment. While ironing Anne is watching an art related TV programme supposedly about abstract painting (reflection of TV screen shows images that bear some resemblance to paintings of Robert Delaunay or Paul Klee). This scene is an exemplary instance of how the violence in Haneke’s films is verbal and happens off-screen rather than per se, when Anne suddenly is disturbed by the screams of a young girl from neighbourhood. Although Anne seems deeply distressed at first, once the noises die out, she desensitises herself with a glass of wine and returns to her chore. It is a theme of disavowed responsibility.
If: “an active question is a question created by the narrative in the audience’s minds, which intrigues and holds it to the narrative while an answer is sought.” then the active questions of the plot are the ethical ones in Haneke’s films. They do not concern as much the protagonists as the audience – there is a constant tension evoked by the characters’ choices in their every day lives or rather the lack of decisiveness. That is why the tales are incomplete – we are left with questions to answer or rather with posed problems. It is the audience’s task to make meaning as the characters’ passiveness is unnerving.
To summarize I will use a metaphor which illustrates the narrative structure that Code Unknown embodies – namely Quantum entanglement. It is a property of the quantum mechanical state of a system containing multiple objects, in which the objects that make up the system are linked in such a way that one cannot adequately describe the quantum state of any member of the system without full mention of the other members of the system, even if the individual objects are spatially separated. Such was an intention of Code Unknown to create a world in which the interlinked lives of characters are bound together in a succession of causes and consequences and where events are incomprehensible unless there is a knowledge of all the fragments and elements involved. “Haneke is a director who is aware that truth and meaning arise most tellingly in terms of the irreducible details of a particular situation. He consistently reminds the viewer, either in terms of film style or narrative approach, that more than one viewpoint is always possible, and that some absolute measure for evaluating multiple perceptions of a given object or event is never available.”
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Marc Augé, Non-Places – Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Verso 2000
David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Film Art – An Introduction, McGraw-Hill 2004
Tom Conley, Tracking Code Unknown, in Grundmann
Robert Von Dassanowsky, Austrian Cinema: A History, McFarland & Company 2005
Thomas Elsaesser, Performative Self-Contradictions – Michael Haneke’s Mind Games, in Grundmann
Roy Grundmann, A Companion to Michael Haneke, Wiley-Blackwell 2010
Philip Parker, The Art and Science of Screenwriting, Intellect Books 1998
Brigitte Peucker, Games Haneke Plays – Reality and Performance, in: Grundmann
Willy Riemer, After Postmodernism – Austrian Literature and Film in Transition, Ariadne Press 2000
Oliver C. Speck, Funny Frames – The Filmic Concepts of Michael Haneke, Continuum 2010
Kevin L. Stoehr, Haneke’s Secession Perspectivism and Anti-Nihilism in Code Unknown and Caché, in Grundmann
Catherine Wheatley, Michael Haneke’s Cinema – The Ethic of The Image, Berghahn Books 2009
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.