A Note on Code Inconnu (Michael Haneke, 2000)



Has there ever been a better illustration of Trin T. Min-ha´s precept that there´s a ´first world in every third world and vice versa´? An act of littering by a young man, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) leads to a dispute. The wrapping paper seems to hit a beggar woman Maria (Luminita Gehorgiou), and Amadou (Ona Ly Yenke), a young black teacher, chases after him to demand an apology. Anne (Juliet Binoche) the parter of Jean´s brother, Georges (Thierry Nouvic) gets involved in the melée. The result is that the black man is taken to the police station, the migrant woman is deported and, seemingly, Jean and Anne are left to go on with their lives. But things are not so simple, the film posits a rural/ metropolitan divide. Jean lives with his father on a farm and wants a different kind of life but if he goes for it the farm will dissolve. Jean will leave the farm and we will never be told what happens to him,.

Anne and George both work with images. Anne is an actress. She´s constantly performing, inhabiting, trying out, changing, manipulating the images she helps construct. She´s had some success but her gender makes her vulnerable, and in metro cars she can be easily intimidated and harassed by Arab youths out for a lark (the youth and the older man who tells him he ought to be ashamed of himself for his behaviour will play father and son in Caché). Georges is a photographer who goes to war zones to document what he sees. He finds life simpler there, easier than the farm with his father, and simpler than Paris and his relationship with Anne. But do his pictures make a difference?

At the beginning of the film, a child performs a guess game to other children, seemingly deaf and mute, who must guess the idea or thing being performed. But they can´t. They don´t have the code to unlock its meaning. Likewise, with the rest of the film. Amadou´s family lives in Paris. But they don´t understand him. His mother likes to have her life explained according to superstitions from her village in Mali and thinks her son´s bad luck comes from seeing a white woman. The father, who drives a cab in Paris, leaves them to return home where his car makes him a rich man. Likewise, with Maria, selling papers on the streets of Paris but a woman of property in her village in Romania, building houses so that each of her daughters can marry and driven to tears because she remembers the disgust with which she gave money to a gypsy beggarwoman and realises that now people treat her in the same way.


All the scenes progress linearly and all these various worlds intersect in the film. But, each having its own code, these worlds, much less the events that take place in them are only understood by those who live within them and have access to the various codes of communication, ones that differ even when different peoples and cultures share a geographical space.

The abrupt cuts to black, often with characters in mid-sentence, has the effect of creating a different sense of time and space, the narrative moves forward, but at each instance one gets the sense that the other characters one is not seeing continue to inhabit the story, that there are different stories of which one is getting only a partial view. Time encompasses many spaces in this film. Even when the fim´s showing you only the particulars of one space, the lives of those who inhabit that particular space in that particular time, the abruptness of the cuts and the severe and lingering fades to black, create a feeling that all those other lives in all of those different but interconnected spaces, continue. Now if we only had the codes necessary to understand them,.


This lack of understanding is not just between rural-metropolitan, north and southern Europe, Europe and Africa, white versus black or Arab, but also between male and female: ´Have you ever made anyone happy? asks Anne of Georges.

It´s a great work and I´m only sorry it´t taken me 20 years to re-visit it.


José Arroyo



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