Sunday, May 07, 2006

Michael Haneke's Code Unknown

Michael Haneke's Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys is a profound look at the questions of communication (or the difficulty, perhaps even impossibility of), xenophobia, isolation and breakdown of community in modern, post-industrial societies. The concept is somewhat similar to the last year's hit Hollywood film Crash (it was released in the year 2000) but rest assured, it is not hard to guess why it didn't get anywhere near to winning any Oscars. It is a difficult film to watch, in not only the difficult questions it raises or its bleak dissection of contemporary society, but also because of the structure of the film itself. Like his other films Funny Games and Cache, Haneke makes sure that audiences know that they are watching a movie, that is, it is a representation of reality and not the reality itself. Each of the scenes is shot in one take, some long others short, and each ends abruptly, sometimes even before the dialogue ends, to a blank screen. There is absolutely no illusion of continuity, that we generally expect from a movie. Also the lead character, played with her usual brilliance by Juliette Binoche, is an actress who is acting in thriller film. There are a few scenes from the movie within the movie and Haneke shows in those scenes how easy it is to provide what audiences want -- thrills and chills. In the rest of the film he makes sure that audiences don't get any of these conventional satisfactions!

I won't attempt to write a comprehensive summary or review of the film. You can read some of them here. The sight and sound magazine also has a long summary of the film. I will just say that after watching it Crash would feel like a kiddie movie.

Just some stray thoughts. The film begins with a pantomime game being played by children. One girl makes a body/facial gesture and other kids guess what that gesture could be. Some of the guesses are, "Alone", "Sadness", "Imprisoned", "Hiding Place", "Bad Conscience". To each of these guesses the girl answers No but perhaps we the audience know better. It is all these emotions that the film that we are going to see will be about. This is a perfect introduction to the film.

Also the first regular scene of the film is a masterly long take (almost ten minutes) in which the camera tracks as the character played by Binoche talks to her brother in law. In it we see how a black man is victimised when he comes to avenge the insult to a woman beggar (who we later know is an illegal immigrant). As if to balance this scene (blacks are victims and white people are victimisers), we later see an arab youth gratuitously taunting Juliette Binoche about her race, class and gender. It is an extremely powerful and unnerving scene and I won't spoil it by describing it here. You just have to see it. Also the seen, with the collage of still photographs, first from the war scenes in Kosovo and then faces belonging to different race, culture and nationalities while the narrator recounts his experiences in Kosovo and Kabul, is quite eerie. I didn't know what to make of it. Reminded me of Godard's In Praise of Love.

Interestingly I was also reading Amartya Sen's collection of essays, The Argumentative Indian(which is brilliant by the way) this weekend. After watching Code Unknown, Sen's ideas and historical judgments looked hopelessly naive and optimistic to me. I know, I am being unfair to both Haneke and Amartya Sen when I say this. They are both looking at the same things from two different angles. While the situation in multicultural cities of Europe isn't something that we can be optimistic about, it can never be denied that we still have a long tradition of inter-community dialogue and communication and it is not impossible to continue the same tradition of heterodoxy and openness even in this age. I don't know, if it is naive to believe that human beings can transcend the barriers of class, race, nationality, religion, gender, age or just plain psychological fear, uncertainty, paranoia and anxiety and reach out to other human beings. Perhaps it is naive.

I had earlier written about Cache, Funny Games and Seventh Continent. (Yes, I am a big fan of Michael Haneke!)

A long essay on Haneke which discusses Code Unknown, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher.


anurag said...

Just finished watching Code Unknown, its brilliant. Need to watch others of Haneke soon.

Alok said...

Yes, I thought it was extremely complex, rich and provocative. Worth seeing more than once and worth thinking about. Try writing about it on your blog.

wireless sex toys said...

hello friends I really liked this information, a few days ago I read something similar, I would like to receive updates on this issue, as it is very interesting, thanks!