Code Inconnu/Code Unknown, 2000

In an age of a borderless, new European economy, the volatile encounter of four people on an anonymous Parisian street underscores the underlying social disparity inherent in any increasingly multicultural, contemporary urban society. A brash, impatient young man named Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) accosts his older brother’s girlfriend, an actress named Anne (Juliette Binoche), on the street after being unable to reach her on the telephone. Attempting to gain alliance against their father (Josef Bierbichler) from his brother Georges (Thierry Neuvic), a photojournalist on assignment in the Balkans, Jean, without solicitation, begins to complain to the polite, but hurried and preoccupied Anne, of his objection to his father’s unconsented plans to renovate the family’s farmhouse with the expectation of apprenticing him to assume eventual responsibility for the farm. Pressed for time and unprepared to appropriately address Jean’s personal issues, Anne attempts to placate him with a snack purchased from a nearby vendor and gives him the keys to the apartment, providing a terse reminder that he cannot stay indefinitely. Jean’s frustrated attempts to voice his grievance leads to a thoughtless act: discarding his crumpled paper bag into the lap of an undocumented immigrant from Romania named Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu) who is panhandling near the entrance of a cornershop. A principled and tenacious music teacher of African descent, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), witnesses the humiliating episode, and confronts Jean to demand an apology. The altercation soon draws the attention of the police who seem to quickly side with the young transgressor, duly noting Jean and an interfering, tangentially aggrieved shop owner’s complaints. Eventually, the well-intentioned Amadou and inculpable Maria are officially detained.

Michael Haneke creates an intelligently constructed, compelling, provocative, and relevant observation on social inequity, the untenability of cultural assimilation, and the failure of communication in Code Inconnu. Presented as a series of dissociated (and intrinsically ethnographic) episodes on the lives of the principal characters following the fateful (though seemingly trivial) transection, Haneke examines the ingrained social divisiveness, moral complacency, and created bounds of human interaction. Chronologically indeterminate events, interrupted dialogues (often truncated in mid sentence), prolonged transitional fadeouts, and recurrent episodes of missed (and mis) communication (Jean’s unsuccessful attempts to reach Georges and Anne; the mysterious letter left on Anne’s door seeking help, perhaps written by an abused child living in a neighboring apartment; Georges’ inability to unlock the front door of the apartment building after the access code is changed) pervade the film’s fragmented narrative structure, exposing the flawed perception of cultural integration and social equality in the constantly evolving racial and socio-economic demography of a traditionally monoethnic society. The exquisitely wordless, extended final sequence, articulated solely through the consonant rhythm of an outdoor performance by Amadou’s deaf music students, illustrates the innately human capacity to transcend the artificially imposed barriers of cultural perception and bias to communicate through the universal language of community and compassion. However, in the frenetic pace and ambient cacophony of a claustrophobic, modern existence, human expression is often only valued for its measured distance and tolerated silence.

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