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Kino on Video presents

Code Unknown (2000)

"Can you hear the silence?"- unidentified psychotic realtor

Stars: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Sepp Bierbichler, Luminita Gheorghiu
Other Stars: Ona Lu Yenke, Arsinée Khanjian
Director: Michael Haneke

Manufacturer: Cine Magnetics
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for adult themes, some profanity
Run Time: 01h:52m:04s
Release Date: 2002-08-06
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+B-C+ C


DVD Review

Beware the film that has a colon in its title, for this bit of punctuation is sure to betray its academic pedigree. The full title of this movie is Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (or, if you prefer, Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages), and it's the word "incomplete" that you'll want to keep your eye on. The film deliberately avoids classical narrative conventions, providing instead loosely interlocking anecdotes from the lives of a handful of Parisians, pursuing their hopes and dreams, and tucking away their fears.

The actors are a fairly balanced ensemble, but getting a plurality of screen time is Juliette Binoche, playing Anne, an actress—we see her shooting a thriller, auditioning for a role in Twelfth Night, making rent with her craft if not quite hitting the big time. Also here is Anne's boyfriend, Georges (Thierry Neuvic), a photojournalist just back from covering the carnage in central Europe; and Georges' brother, who doesn't want to take over the family farm, despite his father's wishes. Various turns bring them in touch with a Romanian woman who has come to France illegally and is now begging in the streets, and with the son of African immigrants, himself a teacher, whose sense of righteousness and injustice makes him overly eager to fight other people's battles.

Communication, or lack thereof, seems to be the principal theme of the film, and each scene and character plays out some variation on it—some are more successful than others, and some of them are deeply moving. (The film more or less announces its theme at the outset, as we watch a game of charades played by a group of deaf children.) But too often it feels rather arid, more an intellectual exercise than a story, or a film that has substituted subtext for narrative.

Early on especially, there's a parlor game aspect to the movie, as you try to figure out how each newly introduced character is connected to one or more of the people we've already met—this is where the film most resembles something like Slacker, or, even more so, Short Cuts. And there are obvious similarities between director Michael Haneke's style here and Robert Altman's—there's not a tremendous amount of narrative propelling the stories forward, but there's a good bit of interesting behavior.

Sometimes, though, it's a whole lot less interesting. There's a long scene, for instance, in which we see Binoche, ironing shirts as she watches the local news, listening to the noises of the neighbors in her apartment building. She turns the television off, and then back on; she irons another shirt. And then the scene is over. To what end? Yes, we've all spent time like this, but really, that's not enough to sustain our attention. It's nice that the filmmaker is content to show us a character alone with her thoughts, but is there enough context to make it powerful? Or is it just messed up for the sake of the art house audience? How you answer that question will probably be a fairly good indicator of how you judge the movie.

There are some startling visual compositions, though, and they can take the sting out of some of the ennui. One shot in particular comes to mind: a tractor in a field, knifing diagonally through the grass, bisecting the screen—on one side, the deep, rich brown of the newly turned-over dirt, on the other, the saturated green of the rest of the crop waiting to be plowed. Above, the blue of the sky and the white clouds are in stark relief. It's a magnificent image, and if you're not content with it and are looking for Hollywood-style dramatic structure, this isn't the movie for you.

Haneke is at his best when he is teasing out the emotional ups and downs we experience day to day that don't usually make it to the screen. In one scene Binoche is harassed by an obnoxious passenger on the metro, and as another man comes to her defense, we feel with her that instant, fleeting camaraderie of strangers in a public place with a common obstacle. But given that so many of the scenes are discrete and disconnected from the others, almost willfully so, in some respects this is a movie nearly designed to take advantage of the random play feature on your DVD player.

Unless your French is excellent, you'll be reading the subtitles, and there's another layer of communicative problems here for American audiences, as the English subtitles seem pretty clearly to have been rendered by someone from Great Britain. Hence an answering machine is referred to as an "answer-phone," and one character promises another to "have a think about it." There is, though, a certain appropriateness to these slight cultural confusions, given the theme of the film in question.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The color palette is rich and full, though there tends to be some blurring at the edges of the nonanamorphic image. Also, it looks as if the print was dumped right down onto DVD, as it bears many nicks and scratches, the sorts of things a good cleaning up might have taken care of.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchno

Audio Transfer Review: The dynamics on the track are generally fine, though there are a couple of small details that are seriously out of whack. Things like forks clanging on dinner plates, drinking glasses knocking together or cigarettes being tapped on a table are thunderously loud, and it seems as if it's a problem with the transfer, rather than with the original mix. Otherwise, the 2.0 track is steady enough.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Piano Teacher, Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train
Packaging: Alpha
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Case insert with a letter from the director
Extras Review: The extras on the disc itself aren't especially illuminating; the best addition to the movie is a letter written by director Michael Haneke, to the producer, Marin Karmitz, for the movie's press kit. He shies away from wanting to talk too much about the movieó"The interesting thing about a table is its quality, its shape, its functional nature, the way the material was shaped, not the cabinetmaker's opinion"—but he does offer a list of questions that prompted him to make the film. They include: "Can reality be represented?" "In the world of moving pictures, are illusion and deception twins or merely closely related?" "Is precision an aesthetic or a moral category?" They're provocative, but it all feels like the stuff of a philosophy seminar, not of a motion picture, and the movie works best on this elevated intellectual plane.

Extras Grade: C

Final Comments

Food for thought, certainly, but not entirely dramatically satisfying, Code Unknown will likely provoke your intellect, if it doesn't necessarily speak to your heart.

Jon Danziger 2002-08-12