Many art-house films these days trend toward optimism and escapist whimsy--see Amlie and Happenstance. But Code Unknown, which appeared at Cannes in 2000, is one film you can't accuse of inordinate cheer. It's an assaultive, nerve-drubbing performance--one that captures all too closely the current anxious climate in America. Helmed by Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke (who took prizes this year at Cannes for La Pianiste), Code favors his signature long takes, discontinuities, and dearth of plot. Happily, it's not as nasty as his 1997 Funny Games, which detailed the horrors unloosed by two sickos on the rich family they've imprisoned in their country house, and reportedly sent some viewers stumbling toward the exit.
Code Unknown opens with a nine-minute tracking shot of Anne, played by a deglamorized Juliette Binoche in sneaks and shapeless trench, walking along a Paris street (and reminiscent of the Nouvelle Vague fondness for such real-time shots). Her boyfriend George's kid brother asks her for the new code to her apartment, where he wants to crash after a family dispute--an incident reprised at the end. The street scene then segues into an abrasive multicultural moment after the kid brother tosses a crumpled bag at a begging woman, and is attacked by an African youth, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), incensed at the boy's cavalier treatment of the beggar. Haneke immediately implicates the viewer in an uncomfortable split vision: Are we meant to feel outrage at the racist cops, who haul off Amadou and deport the street woman? Or cringe at Amadou's towering rage at a boy more thoughtless than malevolent? This trip-wire of a scene suggests that in today's urban milieu, you can do no right.
Unconnected or loosely linked stories then spin out from this episode. One involves the family of Amadou, who teaches drumming to deaf children. Another follows the woman beggar home to her family in Romania and subsequent smuggling back to the Paris streets in a dispiriting cycle. The most involving story tracks Anne's acting career, including spliced-in scenes from her movies, and her troubled relationship with the rarely present Georges (Thierry Neuvic), a Gallic version of the work-obsessed, emotionally arctic male. Finally, Georges is left standing in the dismal rain outside Anne's apartment because he no longer knows the code. The film does not so much conclude as drop from consciousness.
The inability to communicate; the intermixed levels of Anne's movie scenes and her 'real' life with George--this is really warmed-over art-house fare. But it's dressed up in witty Godardian edits, with scenes ending mid-sentence, Brechtian fades, and provocatively long takes. The movie also draws firepower from sharply crafted episodes. In the midst of shopping for groceries, Anne lashes out at Georges for his non-committal style ('Have you ever made anyone happy?'), then, when they seem on the verge of splitting, she crushes him in a savage embrace. Binoche's bold performance is a revelation after her sugary turn in Chocolat. Another scalding scene: An Arab youth verbally assaults Anne, unprovoked, in a metro car, his harangue icily observed by a static camera in a neutral long shot; then, after she changes seats, he comes and spits in her face. The racial and ethnic strife permeating Haneke's Paris, and his portrait of displaced immigrants, are a far cry from the retro valentine of Amlie. The closing sections are accompanied by a program for thunderous massed drums put on by Amadou's class that's both stirring and a menacing call to arms by the world's dispossessed.
Overall, though, the interminable takes--such as Anne ironing in real time--can make even a cinephile antsy. And the film's episodic structure finally proves maddening. The French subtitle means 'incomplete tales of several journeys'--and there lies the problem. We itch to connect the dots, but are denied access to any deeper design, which may or may not lie outside the frame of the movie, like some of Haneke's brilliant off-camera 'shots.' And though psychologizing may be dated, the scenes are annoyingly under-explained. When Anne tells Georges that she's aborted his child, we never learn if she's lying or telling the truth. The ending of Code is similarly unfocused: Why has Georges been locked out? Has Anne spitefully changed the code to blow him off? Or is Code Unknown a metaphor for the loss of a safe haven, not only for Georges but the rest of us as well?