Viewers who are easily frustrated by narrative complexity should probably skip “Code Unknown.” The French film is a concatenation of interlaced stories, told through abrupt shifts from one to another; it’s almost as though the individual episodes had been filmed separately and the celluloid then cut into bits and shuffled like a deck of cards. (The original title “Code Inconnu” bore the subtitle “Recit incomplet de divers voyages,” which can be translated as “An Incomplete Tale of Several Journeys”). If you’re patient a pattern will emerge, but many won’t choose to wait for it to do so.
The starting point of writer-director Michael Haneke’s story is a street scruffle in Paris. A disgruntled young man named Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) tosses a paper bag into the hands of a street beggar, an illegal Romanian immigrant named Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu); the act is witnessed by Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a principled black teacher, who accosts Jean and demands that he apologize. Anne (Juliette Binoche), the actress girlfriend of Jean’s brother Georges (Thierry Neuvic), intervenes, but ultimately the gendarmes separate the men, and the person who suffers most is Maria, who’s deported. From here the narrative follows–in often ragged, disconnected fashion–the lives of the characters introduced in the opening, adding a few family members and other acquaintances to the mix. We follow Anne, for instance, as she plays a series of what turn out to be scenes in a film (apparently a French version of John Fowles’ novel “The Collector”)–though at first it’s unclear whether the episodes are truth or fiction. There are further sequences relating to the disintegration of families (both individual and national), including one involving abortion and another suggestive of child abuse.
The theme that ties all of this together, it would appear, is the notion that the world is a cruel place, and that prejudice and bigotry are diseases that will destroy the social compact unless they’re addressed on both an individual and a political level. Pointing this out is surely a noble enterprise, and one can easily applaud Haneke for tackling so ambitious a subject. Unfortunately, because of its elliptical, disjointed structure, his “Code” is only partially successful in finding a way to dramatize the message. Some of its scenes are quite extraordinary: one in which Anne is accosted on the train by an Arab youth is genuinely tense, and another showing the despair of Jean’s father when his son abandons the family farm is harrowing in its simplicity. One can’t help but be moved by Gheorghiu’s long-suffering Maria, and the discreet hopelessness in the child-abuse episode is remarkably achieved. The power of each strand in the narrative, however, is diluted by the ceaseless shifting from story to story, and when one finally reaches the film’s destination, you might doubt that getting there was worth the effort. The construction makes it difficult for the cast, too: Binoche, as always, is fascinating to watch, but never seems to capture the essence of a character presented in so fragmentary a fashion.
“Code Unknown” is one of those enigmatic, allusive films that it’s easier to admire than to embrace. As an intellectual exercise, it’s quite distinguished. As a drama, its reach exceeds its grasp.