Code Unknown

By Mike Sperlinger, 10 July 2001

Michael Haneke's review of new film Code Unknown

Michael Haneke’s latest British release opens with a continuous ten-minute shot tracing the chain of events which connects, for a moment, the lives of several disparate Parisians: an actress (Juliette Binoche), her lover’s younger brother, a Romanian refugee and the son of a West African immigrant. This virtuoso device, underlining a moment of community between otherwise compartmentalised lives, is the springboard for an account of communication failed and blocked in all its forms – from a lovers’ breakdown signalled by a changed apartment entry code, to the tribulations of a refugee’s border crossing.

Code Unknown itself tries to suggest the possibility of new cultural codes through its use of form: a fragmentary sequence of baroque tracking shots which aspire to patient, non-judgmental understanding of the characters as their various tales unfold. Haneke is clearly exercised by the risk of bad faith, of making art the privileged site of a universal code which will render these alienated experiences commensurable and communicable – in one pregnant scene, Binoche turns down the volume on a TV programme about avant-garde art to hear a child’s screams from the flat next door. But the uneven quality of some of the performances perhaps suggests tensions that remain insuperable. For a film so insistent on the ambiguity of gesture – the very first shot is of a deaf girl performing an enigmatic mime – Code Unknown seems finally too calculated, underwritten by a faith in the very common currencies it so convincingly suggests are not presently available. A forceful failure, nevertheless.

Mike Sperlinger <mike AT> is a writer.