Michael Winterbottom’s futurist romance Code 46 is a four-star mess of a film, a 92-minute, color-coded mood enhancer boiling over with provocative ideas and unsettling imagery. In the moment, it plays with the paranoid uncertainty of a drug trip, and as such it’s tempting to resist the film’s invasiveness, not least because of the subtle way it gets under your skin. What is it we’re resisting? Winterbottom’s cold, sterile mise en scène—a triumph of mostly big city location photography (identified as Shanghai and Seattle)—provides a counterpoint clue through its anonymous architecture: the alien invader is human feeling, a fact later confirmed by the film’s protagonist, corporate crimes detective William Geld (Tim Robbins). “I’m on an empathy virus,” he tells paramour Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton) during a get-to-know-you moment in a Shanghai karaoke bar, thus subtly revealing Code 46‘s tragic theme: emotion is disease. A postmodern noir hero, William—literally sick with sympathy—falls under love’s “corrupting” influence despite his loveless surroundings.
The society of Code 46 is multiculturalism run amok. Genetics has progressed past the point of idealism, eradicating cultural differences in the guise of progress and bleaching out the soul beneath the skin color—science, the silent enemy, performing a methodical interior whitewash. The titular code is one regulatory law among many, a sort of check on procreation: if two persons, like William and Maria, share similar genetic codes then they cannot be lovers. To the ever-watchful eyes of science, sex is a purely physical act subject to rigid ideals. In this world, Shanghai and Seattle are indistinct entities (they might as well be the same city) and the people inhabiting them are multiracial George A. Romero zombies without the outwardly cannibalistic urge. Internal distinctions devoured, they’ve adopted English as the primary language, peppering their speech with junk-DNA colloquialisms—from Spanish to Arabic (a slew of new dead languages)—that are unacknowledged remnants of a forgotten past.
William is supposed to uphold this fascist status quo, his temporary, drug-induced vulnerability the means by which he plans to identify a criminal within the ominously named Sphinx corporation. Instead, the empathy virus weakens (hence strengthens) his emotional resolve, resulting in the breakdown of a lifetime’s worth of restrictive societal boundaries. Hopelessly lost in his sudden awareness of self, William meets his match in Maria. She is the criminal he seeks: Using her position at the Sphinx, she smuggles out “papelles,” a kind of time-sensitive passport that she gives to those in need. William discovers her transgression, but does not identify her as the culprit and, though it’s never fully clear what motivates his decision, this uncertainty only adds to Code 46‘s profound exploration of the mysteries of love.
At first William and Maria seem like an unlikely pair. Tall, gray-haired, and still boyish at almost 50, Robbins suggests a dour pro-colonialist Anglo-American bean counter, his business suit anonymity making for a marked contrast with the diminutive 20-something Morton’s feral intensity—her every movement is a spontaneous zigzag, a mini-revolution against any and all outside forces. Opposites attract nonetheless—the film’s electronic score (composed by The Free Association) acts as hypnotic conductor—and the spell is solidified by a shot of Maria dancing in strobe light. There is a palpable erotic charge as the camera—assuming William’s (and our) point of view—caresses Maria, a multi-layered empathy that extends deliriously beyond the screen.
Certainly this proves that Samantha Morton was born to be photographed and it’s heartening that Winterbottom expands on the punk-rock Joan of Arc spiritual mythology of the actress’s work with directors Steven Spielberg (Minority Report) and Jim Sheridan (In America), beautifully shaping the final performance of a cinematic holy trinity. Indeed, in Code 46‘s glorious climactic sex scene—a single-shot pieta/crucifixion combination that illustrates and reconciles Einstein’s statement that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”—Morton becomes both lover and mother, the Magdalene and the Virgin melded in euphoric flesh. As she stares into and beyond the camera, whispering hallowed “I love you"s (a yin/yang complement to Julianne Moore’s transcendent final moments in Safe) the actress effectively breaks through the audience’s own empathy virus, revealing, in a multifaceted moment of apocalyptic ecstasy, the deep-rooted emotional truth under our collective dis-ease. And all there is is love.