Friday, February 10, 2012

Overlooked Gems #21: Code Unknown

Grade: 88 (A-)

Hyperlink cinema has been one of the most dominant subgenres in film over the past two decades. Popularized by Robert Altman’s Nashville and Short Cuts, it follows multiple characters through interwoven storylines, often in service of the exploration of one particular location or theme. After Altman’s ingenuity, many of the most talented filmmakers of the 90s and early 2000s gave their own worthy entries in the subgenre- Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction, Paul Thomas Anderson with Magnolia, and Steven Soderbergh with Traffic. Lately, however, the subgenre has fallen into the hands of less gifted directors and screenwriters, who often feel they need to shove an audience’s faces in misery or beat them over the head in order to get their message across. Paul Haggis’ Crash (“Racism is Bad” the movie) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel (“communication is important!”) are two primary culprits. What’s most frustrating is that these two films were met with widespread critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations, where Michael Haneke’s superior Code Unknown, released years before, explored the same territory with far greater sophistication and subtlety. But then, that doesn’t often get rewarded, does it?
The film begins with a simple event on the streets of Paris: Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) crumples up a piece of paper and thoughtlessly tosses it into the lap of a homeless woman, Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu). Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), the Parisian son of a Malian immigrant, sees this, and he confronts Jean. Jean refuses to apologize, and the two get into a scuffle. Anne (Juliette Binoche), an actress and the girlfriend of Jean’s brother, witnesses the fight and intervenes on Jean’s behalf. The police arrive, assume Amadou is responsible, and arrest him; they also confront Maria and find that she is an illegal immigrant from Romania, and they deport her back to her county.
The film then follows these characters and several others over an indeterminate amount of time: Anne, working on a demanding film, and who tries to do good when she fears the neighbors may be abusing their daughter; Georges (Thierry Neuvic), Jean’s brother and Anne’s boyfriend, a documentary filmmaker; Jean and his father (Josef Bierbichler), a demanding farmer who wants his son to take over his farm; and Maria, back in her home country of Romania, struggling to get by.
It’s all heavy stuff, and while it’s less viscerally punishing than Haneke’s notorious masterpiece Funny Games, it’s still a challenging film, made more so by the fact that Haneke has strung together some fifty scenes that often cut to black before they come to their “natural” end. Yet for all of Haneke’s cold precision (which carries over to all of his films), Code Unknown is never a senseless wallow in misery for misery’s sake. The scenes are presented matter-of-factly, with Haneke showcasing the struggle of the characters in their day-to-day lives in scenes often unrelated to the incident at the opening. This gives the characters a more well-rounded sense of being: these are real people, not some overly-clever screenwriter’s constructs, and their lives aren’t always dictated by a theme.
Yet racial tension and communication problems are at the center of the film. Jean’s difficult relationship with his father has left him uncaring about how he treats others, and he refuses to take responsibility for his actions; his own father doesn’t care what his son wants in life, but rather demands that he take over the business (yet he’s not a monster). Amadou watches his immigrant family struggle in their day-to-day lives, and when Jean callously tosses his trash at Maria, he snaps; his actions get him arrested (the Parisian police assume the black son of an immigrant is responsible) and Maria deported. Anne only wants to do good, and yet she assumes Jean is naturally in the right in the situation, and her later actions do no one any good (Binoche, one of the finest actresses in the world, is particularly strong here). At the center of it all is the supreme irony that many of the deaf children of Paris meet together to learn to better communicate. It’s a multiracial group, and a scene near the end has them performing in a drum line for the city. It’s as if Paris were a perfect place for multicultural harmony. It’s not that simple (Haneke would later explore these themes again in Cache).
For all the racial and class tension, however, it’s not as if everyone is filled with simmering resentment. A lesser filmmaker or screenwriter might have a scene where the kind-hearted Anne blows up and unleashes a series of racial slurs, as we can’t have one good-hearted person. Haneke goes a different route in an uncomfortable sequence on the subway, where Anne is harassed by a Muslim teenager. The young man assumes that Anne won’t talk to him because of class or racial reasons, and he continues to insult and bully her. The other passengers try not to interfere, until one man stands up for her, saying that the young man “should be ashamed”. The young man leaves, but not before frightening Anne once more. She thanks the man before bursting into tears. Everyone makes assumptions in Code Unknown, but it’s never just because a script dictates it. Not everything in the world fits together so neatly, and that’s what makes the film so memorable.

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