Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys

This Michael Haneke film from 2000 bears the hallmarks of its maker and as usual requires the viewer to invest a significant amount of energy and thought when watching. The first clue to beginning to unravel the story comes in the second part of the title: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys. The film is brutally edited into segments which interweave a number of stories which on the face of it have no connection. However, as the film is largely set in Paris, it gives Haneke the opportunity to subtly allow characters from one story to appear as passers-by in another or in the case of the opening scene to directly collide. For me one of the unnerving things about the film was that it stars Juliette Binoche in a role that does not endear her to the audience!

The stories explore themes of the codes required for societies, families, ethnic and also social groups to function. It explores the values and drivers for these groups and documents what may happen when they unwittingly collide in opposition to each other. Each of the stories picks up some of these themes and invites the viewer to reflect on the kind of society that is emerging - particularly in the light of patterns of immigration, economic aspiration, generational divergence and disability.

Binoche's Anne lives with  Georges (Thierry Neuvic) who is a photographer. He returns from the Balkan war zone and is interrogated over dinner by a friend who questions the moral and philosophical worth of what she sees as voyeurism. Playing alongside this are two stories about aspirational economic migration - one illegal from Romania and one legal featuring a family from Mali. Haneke captures the institutional racial/ethnic prejudice of the Gendarmerie which detains and deports the victims whilst allowing the one who abuses their position to get off free. The film strongly features the 'haves' and the 'have nots' and explores how the 'have nots' cannot become the 'haves' unless they discover the code that will allow them to make the transition. There is no exploration of whether or not the transition is right and proper - it is seen simply as a stepping stone to greater prosperity and material wealth. Even when the Romanian family appear to be making the upward path back home, the lure of begging on the streets of Paris proves too strong for Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu).

Anne is an actress appearing in and auditioning for a number of roles which parallel her own confused journey. Binoche displays her trademark ability to wrap steely determination within a cloak of vulnerability but at times it is hard to tell what is fiction and what is reality - another major theme of Haneke's work in general and this story in particular. Georges' (Josef Bierbichler) father still runs the family farm but times are hard as he tries to hand it on to his youngest son Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) who is not interested. Add in a group of deaf children who encode ideas through sign language and who also form a drumming band which provides a pounding rhythmic accompaniment to the final few scenes and you have a complex web of narratives bouncing off and intertwining with one another.

Perhaps this film, as a minimum encourages viewers to think about their own situation and web of relationships and the codes that are used to make them function. It should also encourage us to think beyond these and perhaps identify how our codes exclude certain individuals and groups - maybe by accident or not. Many of he codes we use and develop are unconscious, but they have a tremendous power to exclude or include. Sometimes they have to be rewritten in the face of new understanding. Sometimes rewriting is resisted in the face of seemingly irresistible pressure to maintain the status quo and all of its vested interests - most of which protect those already on the inside.

As I said this film requires input for the viewer if they are to get anything out of it - but that's no bad thing. I am warming to Haneke and some of his other films - most notably Caché and Amour, I rate very highly indeed. If you want to exercise the grey cells do watch this. I'll give it 7/10.

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