I take a while to catch up (I mean, if I’m only just getting into Les Paul and Lucille Ball…) but I am starting to get a new thing about the director Michael Haneke, three of whose films I’ve seen on DVD in the last year – The Piano Teacher (Le Pianiste), Caché (Hidden), and now Code Unknown (technically Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages), which absolutely and relentlessly refuses to join up the dots for the viewer. It was made in 2000, so I am, to say the least, catching up.
The Piano Teacher is pretty brutal, not in an American movie sense, but it’s not to be picked up by someone interested in the art of plink-plonkery. (It has one of those understated titles which might draw in an unsuspecting viewer. I remember reviewing Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence in the 1980s, and went to a late afternoon showing at a time when it was just coming up to Christmas itself. It had attracted in a fair share of careless and foot-weary shoppers, who stashed their gifts by their seats and settled down for a comforting piece of escapism. Scene Two of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence has a botched hara-kiri in it, as I recall. The Exeter ABC had to refund the tickets of several customers very shortly after that.)
The Piano Teacher has Isabelle Huppert (are there any better actresses?) as a woman on the edge of sanity, and obsessed with masochistic images of sex. Caché is worth it for the trick opening sequence alone, and leaves you wondering what the act of viewing is all about (I’m not going to spoil it). But Code Inconnu is constructed like a sequence of poems, and is in another league altogether.
At first sight, Haneke is a little like Altman, in his weaving together of different stories (as in the ensemble films Nashville, which is my favourite, A Wedding, Short Cuts). But, thinking about it, he is more of an anti-Altman, since it is not character which grabs him, but theme. In Code Inconnu, every one of the fragmented scenes – they are even separated by moments of blackness – explores some aspect or other of the way communication is dysfunctional, whether because of race, creed, family, love, art, age. The number of subjects on which he touches, and the way he touches on them, is almost infinite. There are several intersecting narratives, and he doesn’t resolve a single one of them – something which is hinted at in the opening shot, which is of deaf children playing visual charades, and of being unable to guess what the charadist is miming.
So Code Inconnu goes straight on to my small pile of films which are really useful in being able to show how a theme can be developed (the other essential is the Sprecher sisters’ Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, to which I’ll maybe come back in another blog). It isn’t that I insist on films defying conventional story-making. It’s just that I like to be challenged. Code Inconnu is as much as a wake-up call as Pulp Fiction was, except that Tarantino is more interested, I think, in structural devices than in ideas, and repeated viewings of his films make them seem gradually shallower. With Haneke (Austrian, by the way) and Code Inconnu, the film hints at depths that might open up, the more one watches.
I think what clinches it for me is that all the characters are fallible – not a single stereotype in sight. Every time we engage with a character, we find that they have limitations and weaknesses – even the Binoche character, Anne, pictured above, who is the central figure. Is there any actress (except Huppert) who is better? She doesn’t always come across so strongly in her American/English films, but every film she makes in French is notable for her startling, subtle performance.