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With: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Alexandre Hamidi, Ona Lu Yenke, Luminita Gheorghiu
Written by: Michael Haneke
Directed by: Michael Haneke
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Malinka, Romanian, French, German, English, Arabic, with English subtitles
Running Time: 118
Date: 18/05/2000
IMDB

Code Unknown (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cracked 'Code'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Die-hard Juliette Binoche fans who have grown tired of her lightweight strolling through cream puffs like Chocolat and The English Patient, and who long for a return to meatier fare like Blue or Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, can rejoice. Her new film Code Unknown (featured at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival) is an exceedingly difficult, sometimes maddening, but overall rewarding film experience.

Code Unknown opens with a mystery that's never solved. In a class for deaf children, one little girl stands in front of the class and mimes crouching down, as if hiding from something. The other classmates attempt to guess what it is she's trying to say, but none of them gets it right.

The film moves to an astonishingly long tracking shot on the streets of Paris. Binoche, playing Anne, leaves her apartment and begins walking to work. A young man, her brother-in-law Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), approaches her. He's just run away from his father's farm and needs a place to stay. She gives him her key and her new door code and buys him a croissant. He crumples up the croissant wrapper and tosses it into the lap of a lady beggar named Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu). A black citizen named Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke) accosts him and tries to make him apologize. Anne comes back and the cops arrive, hauling both Jean and Amadou away.

Director Michael Haneke (Funny Games) keeps this shot going for some 10 minutes, always facing one direction and tracking up and down the street. Almost every major character crosses paths during this shot, and most importantly, Haneke never blatantly gives us more information than we can use.

He slows things down to give us more information on these characters' lives. Amadou teaches music -- Taiko drumming -- to the deaf children from the first scene, and we learn that his own sister is deaf. Maria comes from Romania and begs for money to send back home. Anne is an actress making a film about being locked in a room. Her boyfriend, Georges (Thierry Neuvic), has just returned from photographing war pictures in Kosovo.

Most of the individual shots stay still for long periods of time on the characters. Moreover, they seem to begin after the action has begun and end before the action ends. Sometimes dialogue gets cut off in mid-sentence. Often, we don't even know who we're watching until some clue connects us with that opening scene.

It's not surprising that Binoche plays the most interesting character. In one scene, she irons clothes and stops when she hears a ruckus next door, perhaps some kind of domestic violence. She frets, trying to think of what to do, but in the end does nothing. Soon the noise stops and she goes back to ironing, perhaps trying to forget the whole thing.

Later, Anne herself is the target of violent thoughts. Two young Arab men get on a subway car and begin taunting her, teasing her for being beautiful and trying in vain to seduce her. At first she's offscreen, but soon she moves to another seat in the foreground; one of the men follows and sits next to her while the other laughs. The scene charges up our adrenaline, and Anne leaves it crying.

The film winds to a close as Amadou's deaf children perform their Taiko drum routine, and the sound from that routine continues, drowning out almost all dialogue and sound during the last 10 minutes of the film. The adrenaline rush from the previous scene continues through this irritating cacophony.

What is all this trying to say? I suspect the film has many mysteries that I did not comprehend, not even during my second viewing. (The film's subtitle is "Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys.") Anne seems to be the center of the film, with various conflicts that she chooses whether or not to take part in (the street, the apartment and the subway). One intriguing scene shows her looping dialogue for her newest film, but just to throw us off track, the scene begins with her fictional film footage as opposed to the "real" Code Unknown world.

Overall, Code Unknown seems to be considering the routines of people who do not know what they want. Whatever small moments of happiness or satisfaction that pop up are quickly followed by moments of loss and confusion. But it's a highly active, participatory, artistic statement with a concrete vision behind it (unlike the new release Intimacy). It's a film that will constantly offer new twists and will live for years to come while most other films die away.

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