After the mad brilliance of The Piano Teacher and the audacious violence of Funny Games, I was quite excited as I prepared to watch another film in the Michael Haneke collection, Code Unknown. Subtitled Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, I had no idea how fitting such a description could be. In fact, Haneke is announcing at the outset his intentions; to tease the audience with mere possibilities and the thrill of anticipation. I was game, I believed, for I am more than receptive to films that deviate from predictable narratives, and in the grand tradition of Robert Altman, I hoped that Haneke would use such an opportunity to explore the depth and complexity of human relations. My joy quickly turned sour, however, as I found myself face to face with pure, unadulterated confusion. And, rather than it practice the sort of bewilderment that challenged my assumptions and ideas, it merely left me puzzled, unable and unwilling to extract meaning or insight. Haneke had started with a usually sound premise (dozens of characters interact and reveal at least a partial truth about our lives), and botched it completely. It would not be an exaggeration to say that nothing of consequence occurs in this film, and all the imagination in the world could not bring it an ounce of relevance.
I can anticipate the objections: that I am too literal-minded; that I cringe in the face of experimental filmmaking and challenges to linear storytelling. Again, I am usually the first to champion a character-driven piece, and given my love for films such as Nashville and Short Cuts, I am more than comfortable in the face of a distinctly unique approach. Still, while Altman explores social class, marriage, fame, politics, womanhood, and loneliness in those films, Haneke chooses instead, in an all-too-typical scene, to show Juliette Binoche ironing. A symbolic representation of ascribed gender roles and the tragedy of contemporary femininity? No, just ironing. Lots of fucking ironing. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes an iron is just an iron. [Ed Note: But sometimes a cigar is a big, black cock]
Throughout the film, we meet cab drivers, actresses, homeless immigrants, policemen, and Arab street punks. We watch, observe, and quietly assess the possible motivations of the characters, hoping in vain to extract meaning or metaphorical understanding. We wait and wait, until it becomes apparent that yes, Haneke meant us to wait into perpetuity, for these are “incomplete tales,” just like life. Don’t you see? While Haneke might be too clever by half for such a conceit, it does little to bring even a remote level of entertainment value to this pretentious mess. I am no slave to closure, but the journey itself must hold at least a shred of truth, otherwise we might as well be watching our neighbors or family members as they stumble through their daily bullshit. I go to the movies for escape in its purest form – because I seek a level of understanding from fellow human beings that is rarely reached when one is surrounded by simpletons and dullards. As such, I do not want a retreat from reality, but rather its enhancement, for I can acknowledge that my life is both cushy and inescapably easy. Give me the gritty and the horrible; the pain and sorrow of life because hell, I see enough people coasting through their mind-numbingly and inconsequential lives as it is.
Code Unknown celebrates such banality. People walk around, say nothing of value, perform a few household chores, or take a dip in the pool, yet nothing they do approaches what I want to see characters doing in a movie. Does this mean that I want “grand statements” in my films? Yes! While I am horrified at message pictures and overwrought agit-prop, I do believe films can be both perceptive and subtle. Poetry need not be written in capital letters. I realize that I have revealed little regarding the actual film, but it is no exaggeration to say that characters creep across the screen, flop a little, and then go away. I do not remember them now and choose never to revisit them, unless of course I am moved by a particularly fine essay in the film’s defense. Fuck it, not even then. In the future, I will consider this film a bump in the road of Haneke’s career, for I do believe he has the talent and voice to provoke audiences around the world. Perhaps this is his One From the Heart; his foray into film school experimentation and the deeply “personal.” He simply has too much to say to have us swallow this endless procession of long takes and the boredom of the commonplace.
Special Ruthless Ratings:
- Overall: 4
- Acting: 6
- Directing: 4
- DVD extras: not a goddamn thing
- Re-watchability: 2