Plot: What’s it about?
Every now and again, I come across a film that I enjoy, but have trouble explaining what it was that made the film special to me. The most recent example of this occurred when I sat down to watch Michael Haneke’s film Code Unknown. Code Unknown deals with material that is very relevant today just as it was in 2000. The principal idea of the film was to explore gaps in class, generation, and nationality with a focus on immigration in Europe. Since the film this immigration has only intensified as terrorists and governments have collided. Watching the film fifteen years after it was released, it felt like it could have been released last week. On top of that, Juliette Binoche is determined to not age, so she looks the exact same now as she did then.
The film revolves around one incident that sets the stage for the rest of the film. Jean, who helps tend to his father’s farm, runs away to Paris to try to stay with his older brother, Georges, who is in Kosovo taking photographs of the war there. Georges’ girlfriend, Anne (Juliette Binoche) walks with Remy from their apartment and explains that Georges is out of town. She buys him a sandwich, and sends him on, because she is an actress and is late for work. Remy eats the sandwich and angrily throws the sandwich wrapper into a beggar’s lap. This leads to a confrontation with Amadou, a French-African, who tries to get him to apologize. The police are dispatched over the scuffle. The beggar is deported. Amadou is taken to the station. From this innocuous incident, the rest of the film follows the lives of Anne and Georges, Amadou, and the beggar.
I had first seen a Haneke film in college when I went to see his American version of his film Funny Games. Haneke is an interesting director, and he does not pull any punches. Code Unknown is a well made film, but like Haneke’s other film, it can feel a bit cold. One reason to love the film is a scene on the subway that preys upon the prejudices of the viewer. Another reason to love it is the incredibly well thought out nine minute beginning scene on the streets of Paris.
Watching the film, I still couldn’t grasp my only feelings for the film. This is one of the rare occasions where the special features illuminated the film to the point of making me regard the film higher than upon first watching it. Haneke explains his intent, and the hazy image became clearer to me.
If you are interested in a non traditional exploration of race and identity in the new millennium, I would highly recommend giving Code Unknown a shot. I would also highly recommend renting first, as the audience is probably fairly limited for this type of a film.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion did an extremely capable job on the brand new 4K digital transfer of the film. Depth and clarity are excellent, with the shadows and grain of the film fully present. Criterion have done an excellent job of cleaning up dirt and scratches with a very pleasing final product. That said, the film itself uses very little color. Haneke likes to paint in grays and concrete slabs. If you set your sights accordingly, the film looks reference quality.
Audio: How’s it sound?
This is a well done, albeit not very intense, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The film is for the most part pretty subdued. Surrounds are most active as ways of intensifying the environment, such as on the streets of Paris, in a restaurant, or on a subway. As this is a dialogue driven film, there is not much to blow away people in terms of spectacle. Also notable is the director’s choice to not use music u till the last ten minutes of the film, as street drummers are heard in the last portion as the film wraps up. Another solid transfer by Criterion, although there is not much for the surrounds to illuminate. On the other side, dialogue is very clear and the translation from French was very capable.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- New interview with Haneke – here is the real meat and bones of this disk. Haneke discusses at length his intentions with the film and explains some of the intricacies of the plot. This feature helped me to form a better opinion of the film and is a must see if you are a fan of the director or the film. Also, the feature runs roughly forty minutes.
- Introduction by Haneke from 2001 – A short but sweet introduction.
- Filming Haneke – a 2000 making-of documentary featuring interviews with Haneke, actor Juliette Binoche, and producer Marin Karmitz, as well as on-set footage of cast and crew- An enjoyable documentary on Haneke’s films and themes. I hope Criterion will be bringing us some of these soon!
- Interview – Haneke discusses the filming of the boulevard sequences. This is one of the best special features you can imagine. Haneke walks through his process, including storyboards and location scouting. For budding filmmakers, this is a must see.
- Interview – Roy Grundmann provides an enjoyable interview that discusses some of the interesting choices made by Haneke in the film.
- Essay – critic Nick James
The Bottom Line
Code Unknown is one of the few films I have seen recently where I could not seem to immediately form an opinion. I marveled at some of the technical elements (including the amazing nine minute tracking shot at the beginning of the film) but failed to make an informed opinion. Luckily, the supplements explained more in depth some of the themes of the film, and made it a much richer experience. I think the average viewer will share my experience. For that reason, I highly recommend a rental before you purchase it. If you become a fan of the film, there is no denying that this disk has some amazing supplements. I personally am glad to own it and look forward to giving it another shot soon.
Note: in many ways this experience reminded me of the film La Cienaga in that I enjoyed it, but could not properly explain why.