One of the world's most influential and provocative filmmakers, the Academy Award–winning Austrian director Michael Haneke diagnoses the social maladies of contemporary Europe with devastating precision and staggering artistry. His 2000 drama 'Code Unknown,' the first of his many films made in France, may be his most inspired work. Composed almost entirely of brilliantly shot, single-take vignettes focusing on characters connected to one seemingly minor incident on a Paris street, Haneke's film—with an outstanding international cast headlined by Juliette Binoche—is a revelatory take on racial inequality and the failure of communication in today’s increasingly diverse European landscape.
The French language title of 'Code Unknown' translates to 'Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys.' The sub-title makes all the difference when preparing to watch 'Code Unknown.' If you're unaware that the film only tells very brief excepts from the lives of different intertwined characters, then you might walk away dissatisfied; however, if you're aware that you're only getting glimpses into the character's lives, then your expectations will be realistic.
'Code Unknown' is an ensemble film that's made up of vignettes that feature reoccurring characters whose lives are somehow connected. If you took the film 'Crash,' removed the definitive beginning and end of the narrative, drastically reduced the manipulation and stereotypes, added some creative filmmaking style, and only showed the middle section of each character's story, then you'd have a film with the same tone, theme and format as 'Code Unknown.' Aside from a few sections that play out as if you're watching a scene from a film that stars one of the characters, each chapter is made up of a long single take.
Although the chapters extend beyond just them, there are four central characters in 'Code Unknown.' We kick off with a long-take chapter that introduces all four of them and shows the seemingly small event that impacts all of their lives. Not all of the chapters that follow feature these four characters – they also tell the stories of their significant others and family members – but we see how that same event affects the lives of those around them.
The four central characters come from entirely different walks of life. Juliette Binoche plays an actress whose boyfriend, an absentee photographer, leaves their love life lacking. In addition to that, although her acting career is strong enough to keep her employed, the unsatisfying roles that she gets aren't going to help her get noticed. Alexandre Hamidi plays her boyfriend's brother, a farm-raised kid who wants to get away from his lower-class upbringing. He's embarrassed by his social status and wants nothing more than to escape it. Luminita Gheorghiu plays an illegal immigrant who makes a living begging on the streets. Her income is sent to her impoverished family at home, but they believe that she's living a dreamy lifestyle in Paris. And Ona Lu Yenke plays a young entitled twenty-something whose family has immigrated from Mali. His intentions may be good, but his rough-around-the-edges attitude and unrefined responses make him quite the unlikeable twenty-something.
The opening sequence starts will Binoche leaving her apartment and finding her boyfriend's brother on the streets. As she walks to work, he repeatedly begs her to make room for him in their small apartment so that he can escape his drab countryside conditions. When he tosses a piece of garbage into the basket of the illegal immigrant beggar, the young and arrogant Malian bystander jumps in and requires the farm boy to apologize. A fight breaks out and the police intervene. The repercussions of this coincidental meeting of the four will extend far beyond just themselves.
If made in the fashion of 'Crash,' then 'Code Unknown' would have applied some overly stereotyped tropes and relied solely upon manipulation for emotional impact. 'Code Unknown,' on the other hand, tells genuine stories that don't feature an ounce of embellishment. Like a film by the Dardenne Brothers, it's pure realism.
'Code Unknown' doesn't have much in the area of rewatchability; however, it features wonderful craftsmanship and deserves to be viewed and analyzed at least once.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has placed 'Code Unknown' on a Region A BD-50 and slapped it into the usual clear keepcase with #780 on the spine. Reverse artwork can be seen through the inside of the keepcase. A fold-out booklet is included that contains an essay by critic Nick James. Nothing plays before the main menu.
'Code Unknown' features a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that initially had me concerned, but quickly calmed that fear. After the usual Criterion Collection logo reel, Janus and MKZ reels play, each of which horribly shake in the center of the screen. Fortunately, the footage that follows is nothing like that. The issue never arises again throughout the actual movie.
Shot on 35 mm, a decent amount of celluloid grain is spread throughout the film. The print is exceptionally clean, never revealing its age nor any damage. No scratches, runs, specks or debris are to be found. There's great clarity and even a decent amount of detail. Most camera shots are from an observational distance, so textures aren't as apparent as they would have been otherwise; however, you can identify the strength of the details by the rigid and defined lines and within the few close-ups that are featured.
The color palette is most pale, matching the natural complexions of many of the main actors. Most outdoor scenes are set beneath cloud cover and add to the overall lifeless palette. Occasionally, scenes are accented with a punch of larger-than-life colors that explode with vibrancy. For example, a passing red car will immediately draw attention, as will the yellow, orange, purple, pink and blue flowers on a vendor's street stand.
Although not an exemplary disc, there aren't any flaws to note. No noise, banding, artifacts or crushing appear.
'Code Unknown' comes with an effective 5.1 French DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The vocal mix is strong, clear and centered when appropriate. City streets and crowded settings fittingly bring the dialog to the surround channels.
Effects are well-mixed throughout, although they can occasionally come across as front-heavy. Bustling city sidewalks comes to life with sounds spread throughout each of the speakers. The layers of sound found within the smaller settings bring great effective subtlty; however, the big scenes can highlight the impact of loud chaos. For example, one scene features a drumline made up of an all-deaf youth group that creates thumpings that pound from all around the room.
Part of the movie's realism comes from the fact that its nearly void of music. Just as the sound designers knew how to mix sound, they also knew how to use silence to their advantage. It's highly effective – but that's not to say that it's a dull and musicless track. One scene in specific – a wedding party – features music that returns the thumping bass. It begins at the sub-woofer and spreads to the surround channels, showing that just as much detail was put into the music mix as the effects and vocal mixing.
'Code Unknown' may not be a film that will go down in the annuls of history, but it's so well-made and well-acted that it's of note. With each vignette consisting solely of long single-take shots, it will excite the film geeks who enjoy the ambitious and difficult style of shooting. The actors, each of whom had to be certainly capable of performing entire scenes fluidly, deliver solid performances. The human tales that are told are interesting enough to keep you attached to the film, but not enough to entice you to revisit it frequently. Several special features – both old and new – are included, most of which revolve around the film's director, Michael Haneke. With great video and audio qualities, this release is sure to please Criterion collectors.