Told chronologically forward but scaled backward against the grain of screenwriting convention, Code Unknown begins with its biggest scene in terms of action, interconnectedness, and sheer ambition, and spends the remainder of its running time winding down, dispersing all of the components that had just for a moment come together in a violent collision. In the film’s closing moments, Michael Haneke renders each parallel storyline into dissolution and uncertainty. With the exception of the penultimate major sequence, a harrowing confrontation on the Paris Metro, which gives the film a degree of emotional symmetry, Code Unknown’s trajectory almost exactly matches an unclenching fist around the audience’s throat.
While it’s tempting to place Code Unknown firmly in the networked-narrative genre too often populated with disgraced epics like Paul Haggis’s Crash and Fernando Meirelles’s 360, Haneke is far less likely than many of that genre’s participants to gaze in starry-eyed wonder at manufactured moments of storytelling coincidence and intersection. The quartet of protagonists in Code Unknown, along with their friends, relatives, and co-workers, simply push past the drama of the opening scene, keep their heads down, and get on with their lives. They’re neither permanently damaged by their troubles, nor wholly redeemed by intermittent pleasures. They have a lot on their minds, and it isn’t always the audience’s privilege to know the entirety of their inner lives. Credit to Haneke for turning this genre against itself by making the unknowability of people his main theme. The characters here don’t sag beneath the weight of the screenplay’s thematic concerns.
One usually watches Haneke’s films in a state of anguished suspense, suspicious of any extended period of calm or malaise, watching every corner of the frame for the sucker punch. This state of self-appointed distraction often threatens to dilute or disturb the myriad of other details and observations Haneke puts into a scene, but that’s the price to be paid when a director courts notoriety as often as he courts prestige. Behind this curtain of suspicion (many critics have even gone so far as to accuse Haneke of dirty tricks), it’s clear that the grand tapestry and global scale of Code Unknown can’t support anything too traumatic, unlike the behind-closed-doors bloodshed one witnesses in several of his other films. If Code Unknown’s protagonists are often glimpsed wandering around in a daze, they’re more likely to be afflicted with unnameable maladies, and preoccupied with banalities they only can claim to understand.
Not that Haneke always plays fair. The wave form of Code Unknown’s multi-strand plot is constructed as a set of paths leading away from, then back to, the character played by the cast’s biggest name, Juliette Binoche. It’s a pronounced bias that favors one of the greatest movie stars in the world. While the sequences concerning Malian music teacher Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), Romanian immigrant Maria (Luminița Gheorghiu), and farmer’s son Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) have their own concerns, these scenes are often deliberately cryptic, lending the “unknown code” of the title an ominous shade of meaning, one of condescension and othering. It’s these scenes, especially those at Amadou’s home, that give one the impression that Haneke has temporarily surrendered manipulative control in favor of hardscrabble verisimilitude and blank verse—an aesthetic process one can only pursue from a position of privilege.
By contrast, Anne’s (Binoche) plotline often revolves around the crisis of well-meaning white privilege. What’s a fairly well-off artist to do in a world that seems to be filled with suffering? This is only mirrored by scenes with Anne’s boyfriend, the sad-eyed, bearded hunk Georges (Thierry Neuvic), who wrestles earnestly with the ethics of practicing photography in a warzone, as only the well-off and virtuous people from countries that still enjoy the fruits of their imperialist history are wont to earnestly wrestle. When Georges presumably, finally achieves the capture of unaffected reality in his photography, by sneaking portrait shots on the Paris Metro, you’re invited simultaneously to admire and resent Haneke for playing for satire several octaves above the expected range. That it could be he’s paying lip service to some undefined platitude-ness about truth and representation could also be part of the joke.
It could be that Haneke’s dry, grave jokes are partly on Haneke. Among other things, there are clues that Anne is a herself bit of a manipulator, and her supermarket argument with Georges, culminating in a bit of “am I telling the truth or aren’t I” concerning an abortion she may or may not have had in his absence, is just the sort of thing the filmmaker’s detractors often take him to task over: mind games, provocation for its own sake. When two teens harass and assault Anne on the subway, it may be far-fetched to say that Anne (and, symbolically, Haneke) is being served some manner of karmic retribution; the scene, overloaded with dread and anger, is too fraught with gender, race, and class baggage to be reduced by simple moral arithmetic. On the other hand, Anne, while a hard-working, well-meaning actress, is often seen using various means (sometimes it’s alcohol, sometimes it’s her overbearing side) to avoid or neutralize confrontation, the manner in which her story concludes (she ghosts Georges by changing the door code to her building and refusing to answer his calls) carries an uncertain meaning, that a life of denial is answered, eventually, somehow, by erasure.
While Code Unknown may emerge as one of Michael Haneke's most restrained films, it should also rank among the provocateur-auteur's most ambitious productions, from a logistical standpoint. The now-famous boulevard scene that prompts the action for the remainder of the film, an elaborate tracking shot that lasts eight minutes flat, is a marvel of analog moviemaking that hardly seems conceivable today, given that its Stanley Donen-league choreography would now practically require the intervention of CGI and HD video. The movie was shot on hardtack-textured 35mm film, and Criterion's high-definition transfer preserves the grain and the cemetery-cold color palette beautifully.
No chamber piece or quiet, lakeside bloodbath, Code Unknown's sound mix is sometimes vast and enveloping, sometimes subtle and surgical: Scenes with Amadou's drum class are meant to be as rich and uplifting as the bit where Anne attempts to eavesdrop on her (possibly) abusive neighbors ought to be disquieting and vaguely insidious. The quiet-loud-quiet contrasts are crucial to Haneke's emotional manipulation, for better or worse, and Criterion's 5.1 DTS track will flex your sound system with conflicting emotional registers.
Haneke's Criterion debut doesn't arrive too far behind his most successful U.S. release, 2012's Amour. Given that movie's unprecedented acclaim and awards play, and the filmmaker's long tenure in arthouse circles, the release of Code Unknown should have come equipped with a healthy dossier of the director's career, or, perhaps, a rare early work. Relieving the talking-heads ennui is an interview with film scholar Roy Grundmann, whose Haneke expertise extends all the way back to the director's TV days in the mid 1970s. Otherwise, the disc's extras consist of a tight formation of interviews with the filmmaker and other experts as they discuss Code Unknown's genesis, production, and themes. It's Haneke himself who's the most helpful in decoding his own direction. Unlike a lot of directors who clam up about their methods and mysteries, the Funny Games director is only too happy to explain and draw diagrams.
Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown will stress you out, but it won’t leave you in a fetal position. Compared to most of his filmography, this is "happy Haneke."