Directed by Michael Haneke
*This post is longer than it should be because I try to figure out how best to describe my affections for a movie I probably don’t yet really understand.
So I figured I’d love Code Unknown going in, and I do. This says less about the film and more about what piques my interest. The film can be described as Richard Linklater’s Slacker meets Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. It is a story of seemingly disjointed vignettes, often shot in a single take and separated by cuts to black. It’s the stillness of this film, with a sneakily impressive choreography, that excites me.
Code Unknown is a wonderful, captivating, fully-realized world with imperfect but admirable characters tied together by a single moment in time, though not an especially noteworthy one.
What makes this film feel so disjointed is that we pass between characters who ostensibly have no relation to one another other than that they once crossed paths. It’s as if the movie knows something they do not, something cosmic and intertwined, a power they cannot see. It’s this kind of omniscience that I enjoy so much, an invisible force that only films can really depict.
It’s the type of force you see in any story that hinges on a sense of fate, whether something as grand as the Skywalker story in Star Wars or as simple as the meet-cute moment in a romantic comedy. It’s something we as the audience know about where the story is headed that the characters involved do not.
But there is none of that grandiosity or romance in this film. The story opens and closes with vignettes involving deaf students playing a game of charades. In the beginning a young girl pantomimes a type of behavior that is hard to read into other than to know that it reflects some type of melancholy. The camera calmly cuts (I don’t know how a ‘cut’ can be calm, but in this case it is) to other students as they guess what the girl is doing. Is she hiding? No. Is she sad? No. Is she a gangster? She smiles to herself, but still no.
Then we cut to black.
The scene establishes that there are no easy answers. Maybe it’s a little too on the nose to suggest that the deaf students are stand ins for us, the audience. We can try to figure out what’s happening in the story all we want, but it won’t much matter.
That being said, there is a story here, with more narrative than Slacker, that cult film in which characters are introduced for a few minutes and then leave the story entirely. When Code Unknown begins, introducing us to actor Anne (Juliette Binoche), we might think this will be a series of such moments, but throughout the film we will continually return to Anne and a small cast of central characters.
A seven minute shot tracks Anne down the street as she runs into the younger brother, Jean, of her boyfriend, George. Jean has again run away from home and needs a place to stay. She gives him the code to her apartment and leaves. The camera remains on Jean and begins tracking him back the way he came. This is when he throws a piece of trash in the lap of a silent beggar, Maria.
Amadou, a young black man, confronts Jean and demands that he apologize to the woman. Jean won’t, and a scuffle ensues which attracts the police. As a result Amadou is harassed and assaulted, and it’s clear that this is only because he’s black. Jean gets away with no harm done, and Maria is deported, sent back to Romania.
This is a true inciting incident, but the respective paths on which these characters embark often feels entirely disconnected from the moment. Amadou goes on a date where he expresses frustration over a perceived slight about his dinner reservation. Anne acts in a film and gets into a small but insignificant fight with her boyfriend George. Jean again runs away from his father once he returns home, and as this all goes on we get acquainted with characters surrounding each of these central four.
We learn more about George, a photographer, we watch him get into an intellectual scuffle out at dinner one night (another impressive long take), and we watch him try to slyly take photos of strangers on the subway. We also follow Amadou’s father, a taxi driver who struggles with his children before leaving behind his family and returning to Africa.
In all of this I struggle to find a common theme, but I know it must be there. There are two instances of someone causing more harm than good when they try to do the right thing, there are several instances of racism and bigotry, and there are two instances of someone returning home to their native country.
Based on the opening and closing scenes of the film, I’m inclined to think that there is no central through line. We simply observe these moments, often in one shot which resists a style of editing that would further enforce a character’s state of mind. There are few close ups, and this style of framing allows for a more objective experience. We get to choose what we look at, and oftentimes the main character is no bigger in frame than a host of unnamed extras. In some cases it takes a solid minute before we even realize who we’re watching.
The story is disjointed, and yet it flows perfectly. Because of the cut to black separating every vignette, we quickly get used to the film’s internal rhythm. There is no score carrying us from moment to moment (other than a steady drumline in the closing minutes), but that sudden cut to black is quite powerful. You see it at the end of The Sopranos or Inception, to use a few noteworthy examples, and I believe there will always be a strong power to such a simple editing technique.
I’m not sure what that power is, but I feel it.
While some vignettes within this film feel like whole scenes, with a beginning, middle and end, others have a much smaller arc. There is still a progression within even a minute-long vignette, but a few of them are so brief and end so abruptly that it unsettles you in a way that forces re-evaluation.
In one of them we are looking at the entrance to a passenger plane. People file in, and a stewardess waits after the queue evaporates. We don’t know who she is or whom she’s waiting for until we see Maria escorted by two uniformed officers, and we understand that she is being deported.
There is no dialogue in that scene, at least none of importance, and all significance is told visually. The viewer is forced to pay attention because it’s not until the very end of the scene that we even understand what that scene is about. It’s a type of storytelling you see currently in HBO’s Westworld and before that in the show Lost.
A conventional scene begins with the most information and then narrows in as the scene progresses. In Code Unknown we often start on a very small detail and must wait until the action passes through it before we understand its significance.
I still don’t entirely know what this film is about, but it’s one of those films that I love thinking about. It’s such a simple idea, to have the camera pass between people, but it really paints a picture of a world broader than in most movies. When we see Amadou harassed by the police and then meet his father, learning of the arrest while driving a passenger, we suddenly have a perspective that most films don’t offer.
This kind of storytelling, again like in Slacker, never delves all that deep into a person’s psyche, but the mere observation of someone we’re used to ignoring in a film like this adds so much emotional weight to the rest of the film. In a conventional murder mystery, by contrast, we are used to the idea of there being a murder victim, an innocent person brutally slaughtered just for the visceral appeal that a movie sometimes feels it necessary to offer. What we don’t often consider is the people who knew that victim. We will learn about a lawyer, maybe one or more of the suspects, but we rarely get a sense of who that victim was before they died. And this is the person whose death sets in motion the entire story.
I knew I would love Code Unknown before I watched it simply because the DVD case mentioned “vignette.” I’m a sucker for a good vignette. They’re like haikus, brief and electric to the imagination. You can paint a portrait of a character through the details, and the less time we send with them, the more our mind wanders about who they could be. You see it not only in Slacker, but also Waking Life, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and in a movie like Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild or Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, films which bother to put care into the characters who dot the edges of the narrative.
Up Next: The Changeling (1980), Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), American Made (2017)