We open with a young deaf-mute girl standing against a wall. A troubled look crosses her face, and she begins to shrink back against the wall. Then, she stands up straight, and the look of concern is replaced by a look of contentment. It seems she has been performing a charade of sorts for a class of other deaf-mute students. Using sign language, the students attempt to guess what the girl was attempting to depict. Sadness? Imprisonment? A guilty conscience? They're all wrong, and we cut away before the correct answer is revealed.
This two-minute sequence serves as a primer on what to expect from Michael Haneke's Code Unknown, a fascinating puzzle-box of a movie that takes a multi-layered look at humanity's communication struggles. The film focuses on a handful of characters whose lives intersect in surprising ways, and you can see its influence in a number of films released a few years later: Crash, Babel, Hereafter. However, those movies are only similar in a superficial sense: they're ultimately earnest sermons about the things (both tragic and beautiful) that unite us despite our differences, and they all feature climactic third-act moments in which all of the disparate story threads are elegantly woven together in the service of a grandiose message. Code Unknown is about the countless things that divide us, and it finds enormously unsettling (and initially frustrating) potency in the way it refuses to clean up the narrative mess it makes.
Following the striking prologue, the film details an incident that will fuel the remainder of the film. Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient) is a French actress walking through the streets of Paris with her boyfriend's younger brother Jean (Alexandre Hamidi, The Accidental Hero), a teenager who asks if he can crash at Anne's apartment for a little while. She reluctantly agrees and gives him the entry code. As the two part ways, Jean crumples up a brown paper bag and hurls it in the lap of a middle-aged Romanian beggar named Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), who had been minding her own business. A young black man named Amadou witnesses the incident, and runs to the scene to confront Jean and demand that he apologize to Maria. Jean refuses, and the two get into a scuffle.
At this point, the conflict begins to draw attention, and a host of different people rush to the scene: Anne, local shop owners, curious bystanders, police officers, etc. Everyone has a different interpretation of what they've seen, and each interpretation is colored by a combination of how much the person has actually seen (Anne approaches when Amadou has the upper hand in the scuffle, and assumes that a stranger is assaulting her son) and bias (for instance, the police deal with Amadou far more aggressively than they deal with Jean). The only people who actually know what happened are the three people who were involved, but that doesn't stop everyone else from having an opinion on the matter.
The remainder of Code Unknown details the way this minor incident impacts the lives of several different people, and begins with a reminder that it requires a certain amount of social privilege to be able to refer to something like this as a “minor incident.” Jean was the only person who did something wrong, but he is a white French teenager – the biggest consequence he faces is a brief scolding. However, Amadou's decision to intervene leads to a trip to the police station, while poor Maria is quickly deported back to her war-torn home country.
Perhaps “details” is the wrong word, as that implies that the film gives a thorough examination of what happens to these people. It doesn't. The film's official subtitle is “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys,” which truthfully suggests that there are crucial pieces missing from the mix. Nearly every scene of the film is a single-take snapshot of a moment in the life of one of the characters (the cast expands considerably, as our time with Anne, Jean, Amadou and Maria leads to time with other people in their lives – Amadou's mother, Anne's boyfriend, Jean's father, Maria's assorted friends and relatives back home). We often enter each scene without knowing where we are or what's going on (the unexplained opening of the charades scene sets a precedent for this) and the scenes have a tendency to end a few seconds before we'd like them to (often just before someone is about to answer an important question or say something meaningful). The camera moves on occasion, but many of the shots are static and the approach never feels like a showoff-y stunt. Instead of distracting us, the stripped-down approach gives us greater focus on what's happening onscreen.
Some of these vignettes are longer than others, and some are more dramatic than others. One scene offers a remarkably tense portrait of an unfortunate encounter on the subway, as Anne is verbally assaulted by a young Arab man while the rest of the passengers refuse to intervene. Another scene offers nothing more than a quick shot of Anne's boyfriend preening in the mirror. Eventually, we begin to realize that Haneke is turning us into the crowd of bystanders in the film's driving incident: we're stumbling upon scenes and making assumptions and guesses about what's happening based on the little information we know. Pieces start to form and connections are made, but not enough of them: we're being given roughly fifty pieces of a million-piece puzzle.
Haneke is often accused of misanthropy (sometimes justifiably), but this is a more empathetic film than its hopeless conclusions would suggest. There's a great deal of tenderness in the way Haneke details Maria's story, particularly in a scene that has her revealing the depths of shame she felt over being reduced to a beggar. Haneke's depiction of Anne is essentially an attack on the bourgeois class, but Binoche's complex performance prevents the character from feeling like a stereotype or a caricature. Her consistent inability to handle a situation correctly is rooted in a lack of understanding rather than a lack of goodness – she's a well-intentioned person whose efforts to do good are undercut by how disconnected she is from the real world (a notion further emphasized by the way Haneke often tricks us into thinking a scene from one of Anne's movies is something that is “really” happening in the film).
This may be a frustrating experience for first-time viewers, because Code Unknown deliberately contradicts everything we know about how storytelling is supposed to work and how movies are supposed to be structured. It feels like we're building up to a big payoff, but that's because we live in a world that has trained us to think that way. Reality has a tendency to contradict expectation on a regular basis, and the brilliance of Code Unknown is that it finds a way to translate that tendency in cinematic terms. We want a big answer – to know that even though the world is a tragic mess, there's a simple solution humanity is theoretically capable of reaching. Code Unknown doesn't have that answer, because the world doesn't yet have one. It's a strong, challenging work from a consistently provocative filmmaker.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Year: 2000