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Code Unknown  [DVD]
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On a busy Paris boulevard, a youth scornfully tosses a crumpled paper bag into the outstretched hands of a beggar woman. This is the bond which, for an instant, links several very different characters: Anne (Binoche), an actress; her war photographer boyfriend Georges; his farmer father and younger brother Jean, who, contrary to his father s wishes, has no interest in inheriting the farm; Amadou, a music teacher for deaf-mute children, and his family, who originate from Africa; and Maria, a Romanian immigrant. Written and directed by Michael Haneke, one of modern cinema s most distinctive and ambitious directors, Code Unknown is a complex film of powerful emotional force and a fascinating study of the subtle connections and barriers between people, social class, race and the difficulty of communicating in the modern world.
In the prelude to Code Unknown, we watch as a class of deaf children play a very sophisticated game of charades. In response to a blank-faced girl shrinking slowly against a wall, the children guess: is it sadness, isolation, loneliness? We are not told the answer before director Michael Haneke cuts to the extraordinary opening sequence of the film. This nine-minute tracking shot along a busy Parisian boulevard, introduces the film's central characters: Amadou, a first generation French boy of West African descent; Maria, a Romanian illegal immigrant; and Anne (Juliette Binoche), a French actress, trying to make the leap from theatre to film. However, this is the only time we will see these characters together in one place before the film fractures into a series of vignettes, which slowly describe their lives, their cultural isolation and their search for small moments of beauty within this alienation.
Michael Haneke has been credited with reinvigorating and refreshing Austrian cinema with expectation-smashing early films such as Funny Games; if his newest pan-European films are anything to go by, he could be set to do the same for Euro cinema in general. Though Code Unknown is very different from Haneke's Benny's Video or Funny Games, like them this film also implicates and involves the viewer in the guilt of the on-screen characters. Its structure of intricately woven story strands is entirely provocative and stirring--politically, aesthetically and emotionally. It's exactly the type of film you want to watch again and again. As with the players of the opening game of charades, we won't be given any easy answers to questions about our collective guilt in the racism and alienation of an undeniably multicultural, multiethnic Europe. --Tricia Tuttle
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The film is complex, yet simple. It essentially asks wheather we can ever really communicate, wheather we are ever aware of the significance of our actions and most devastatingly wheather we have a duty to help even if we are not asked for help. Do we have a responsibility.
Haneke's film is a technical tour-de-force, with perfectly sublime performances. Binoche has not been better since her days with Kieslowski. Her performance as the dispossessed actress is raw and real. The final scenes devastating in their effectiveness and simplicity.
This is a film that is hard to decipher. It will take numerous viewings, but is certainly worth it. Do yourself a favour and stick with it. Supreme!
What's particularly interesting is that it plays on the audiences own prejudices and presuppositions - at one point we naturally assume that a young black character is seated away from the window booth he requested in a restaurant because of his color, but no: it's because he turned up 45 minutes late and the place is busy. Similarly, it doesn't presume that people in what are supposed to be empathetic or compassionate professions are inherently good - when Juliette Binoche's actress asks her war photographer boyfriend advice about the sounds of child abuse from a neighboring flat, he doesn't want to know and her anger is more because he won't give her an out but forces the situation back on her. Her solution: ignore it. Even the innocent victim of the opening incident has to admit with shame that she herself had done the same thing to people she looked down on. It's beautifully worked out with several powerful sequences that are uncomfortably familiar to city dwellers (the metro sequence is particularly powerful) and somehow comes across as exhilarating as it is uncomfortable. Great filmmaking - and a nice extras package on the DVD, too.
Filmed with the camera focusing solely on the main character of a particular strand of storyline is an interesting technique so that you the viewer only sees what the principle character sees.
Described by some as Crash for adults is certainly a valid argument. While Crash guided the audience through its interlinked storylines with minimal effort on the viewers part and certainly described on many occasions why prejudices occur. Code Unknown does the complete opposite, it has no music to dictate your mood, after the two main setpieces one at the beggining and one at the end there is no big dramatic moment involving the concerned characters. Haneke leaves you to decide on how you felt about each and every scene which as i've already said is not for everyone.
I have now seen this film twice and had a different take on events both times. The acting especially from Juliette Binoche is faultless and the two dramatic set pieces are absolutely riveting.
If you like challenging cinema with a little pretention than look no further than Code Unknown
One thing to add is the theatrical nature of the film, I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been adapted from a play since each scene is very tight and the actors tend to stay in the same room. A good film, particularly relevant since the recent Parisian race riots.
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