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Code Unknown


Code Unknown

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At once a moralist and a sadist, clucking his tongue at the tortures he devises so exactingly, Austrian director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The Piano Teacher) confronts the audience by feeding it through the wringer with physical and emotional violence. The onscreen brutality tends to spill out into the lobby: Haneke is one of the world's most polarizing filmmakers, and his brilliance is as hard to deny as it is to embrace, which leaves viewers to either admire it or recoil in the face of his unsettling theses. True to form, Code Unknown reveals tears in the social fabric by shredding itself to ribbons, ending each scene with a hard cut to black that always comes sooner than expected. A searing, structurally ingenious look at racial tension on the streets of Paris, the film is appended by a subtitle ("incomplete tales of several journeys") that only begins to hint at its fragmented style, which connects people's lives with traumatic shocks and jagged edges. Though their stories intersect occasionally, most of the characters' trajectories spin off from a single act of violence with consequences that none of them could have envisioned. Juliette Binoche stars as an actress who agrees to take in her boyfriend's troublesome teenage brother (Alexandre Hamidi) while he's off shooting photographs in Bosnia. After the two part ways on the sidewalk, Himidi retreats in the opposite direction and rudely spikes a crumpled-up bag in the lap of a Romanian beggar. When an appalled West African witness confronts the boy and demands an apology, a scuffle breaks out, drawing the attention of white policemen, who detain everyone involved. In a cruel twist of justice, the good Samaritan gets hauled off in handcuffs, while the beggar, lacking proper identification, winds up deported back to her miserable homeland. From there, Code Unknown splinters into intricately layered vignettes that are arranged like a puzzle with missing pieces, inviting the audience to fill in the gaps of time, narrative, and off-screen space. It takes a while to acclimate to Haneke's discordant rhythms, but, once grasped, the film's internal logic is often staggering in its power, a perfect match of form and subject. In a raw and often courageous performance, Binoche pulls off the tricky challenge of an actress playing an actress, at times making herself a willful accomplice to Haneke, who likes to introduce certain scenes as reality and then yank out the rug. Sketching out the broken lines that separate truth from fiction and one ethnic group from another, Code Unknown is a lesson in ill communication and the explosive violence that stems from it.