Deciphering Michael Haneke’s intricately structured “Code Unknown” is not especially difficult, but the elementary information behind it — multicultural society is a failure and the world is a hostile place scarred by intolerance and lack of communication — barely justifies the effort. Similar in approach and themes to the Austrian writer-director’s 1994 feature, “74 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance,” this French production remains reasonably compelling thanks to its sustained intensity and several powerful scenes, but it’s a grim intellectual exercise destined to have minor commercial impact.
Subtitled “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys,” the drama again follows the “Fragments” scheme, with Haneke glimpsing a number of lives connected either directly or indirectly to a random action. This in itself poses a limitation on audience involvement given that the characters more often function as parts of a puzzle rather than as empathetic figures in a drama.
The closest to a fully developed character is an actress played by Juliette Binoche. While she gives a focused, effectively pained performance shot through with tension, warmth has never been Binoche’s forte.
Coupled with Haneke’s cold, distancing approach, the combination adds up to a rather remote, dour experience.
The central event occurs on a busy Paris corner where embittered young Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) complains to his sister-in-law Anne (Binoche) that he no longer wants to be locked into a life on his father’s farm. Walking away from the encounter, Jean contemptuously tosses a balled-up piece of paper into the lap of Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), a woman begging for money, which enrages passer-by Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke). He tries to force Jean to apologize, but a fight breaks out and cops are summoned, leading to Amadou’s arrest and Maria’s deportation to Romania.
In a dense assembly of short scenes punctuated by black screen, the action then follows each of the three groups: Anne, her photographer husband (Thierry Neuvic), frequently away on assignment in war zones, Jean and his taciturn father (Sepp Bierbichler); Amadou and his African family, who disapprove of his white girlfriends; and Maria, initially in Romania with the family to whom she has been sending cash, then back in Paris to undergo more humiliation when she finds a way to re-enter the country clandestinely.
Haneke’s characters share a unifying frustration, and a feeling of barely suppressed violence. Even scenes showing Anne’s work as an actress are dark and disquieting: A thriller in which her character is lured into a sealed room and told she will die there; a narrowly avoided accident involving a child.
One of the most chilling scenes takes place on the Paris metro, where Anne is harassed and then spat at by an Arab youth.
All this unrelenting bleakness would be fine if it went someplace interesting, but the film’s themes never coalesce into anything beyond basic existential angst, which is all the more disappointing coming from such an intelligent filmmaker as Haneke. The director’s technical skills are highly tuned, as always, and editing of the multiple strands by Andreas Prochaska, Karin Hartusch and Nadine Muse is impressively calibrated, effectively building in the final stretch to pounding drum accompaniment by students from a school for the deaf at which Amadou teaches.