12 October 2001 | garveytv
Is Michael Haneke God?
Well, I suppose not - but he IS the most exciting and interesting new filmmaker around. I would say "young filmmaker" - only he's not young; judging from his bio he's around 60. And he's not really "new", either - he's already made five films. But his films FEEL shockingly "new" - the MATERIAL is new; and it's some measure of how glacial the pace of real aesthetic change is in this supposedly-globalized world that he is only now becoming known in the U.S.
Those of you who have seen his best-known work, "Funny Games", would probably agree with me that it is the most horrifying movie ever made. "Games" coolly subverts the conventions of the horror movie to unremittingly punish the audience for its desire for violence. The effect is unbelievably harrowing.
Now we have "Code Unknown", which is not nearly as cruel an experience as "Funny Games", but which has the same strict intellectual armature. With as radical a technique as Godard's, Haneke takes a short scuffle in the streets of Paris as the point of departure for a meditation on true knowledge in a world of chance and mischance.
Haneke breaks the film up into short, disconnected fragments, with black spaces between them. In several no words are spoken, while others turn out to be "inside" films that the "lead" character, an actress played by Juliette Binoche, is making. Many are long, single shots - sometimes gliding along to follow the characters, but sometimes rooted in one spot as the characters drift to and fro. And the "stories", such as they are, wander too, from Paris to what looks like the Balkans, as Haneke follows Binoche, her war photographer boyfriend, his brother and father, a street beggar who is deported from Paris, a young black teacher of the deaf, and a host of other ancillary characters. What they don't understand - but we do - is that the course of their lives has been largely determined by encounters with people they'll never even know.
These people may think they're drowning in "too much information" - but actually, they don't have ENOUGH information; Haneke's recurring theme is our attempt to interpret a largely-unknown reality - and the problem of our responsibility to act on that interpretation. And despite a handful of longeurs, the effect is mostly completely absorbing. Those who were fascinated by the backwards-moving "Memento" will have a field day with "Code Unknown", where we have to tease out relationships, back story, and whether or not the narrative we're watching is "really" happening at all, with a lot fewer clues than Guy Pierce ever got.
And THEN - and this is what's interesting - somehow Haneke demands that we "make up our minds" about what we've seen; we feel compelled to judge, and yet we cannot - is the kid we see mistreating a beggar really a bad kid? Is the actress really being sealed up to die in a windowless room? Was the note from "a defenseless child" really written by an abused little girl (she turns up dead, so with a shock we appreciate what's at stake in our pause to consider the issue)? "Code Unknown" offers no answers - but then neither does life. The film ends with a scarily-happy drum-pounding by a chorus of deaf children.
I suppose what's startling about Haneke is that he has such an assured technique and yet eschews almost all directoral razzle-dazzle. He's not a Darren Aronofsky, ringing a dozen eye-popping changes on an essentially-empty story. And his intense horrors are justified by the depth and purity of his concerns - unlike those of, say, Tarentino or (God help us!) Guy Ritchie. Haneke's smarts are story and conceptual smarts, not adolescent film smarts; he's wildly daring, but he's icily mature. I'd almost say he's the heir to Kubrick's mantle, but these days that might be tarring him with an unwanted brush (as I watched "Code Unknown" I suddenly realized I was glad Pauline Kael was dead - she'd feel driven to sabotage this much intellectual challenge!).
I had to see "Code Unknown" at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston - however, there was a substantial crowd there; word is slowly getting out about Haneke. "Funny Games" is available on video (but be warned!); as far as I know, his latest, "The Pianist" (with Isabelle Huppert - Haneke's career is obviously being helped by interest from European-mainstream actresses) has yet to achieve a U.S. release. Here's hoping we'll see it in the States sometime soon.