The subtitle to Michael Haneke's 2000 film Code Unknown, finally debuting in Portland this week, is "Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys." It's an ambitious ensemble epic in the vein of Robert Altman's Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, where multiple plot lines interweave to form one portrait. But Code Unknown isn't neatly tied together by a sense of place, a quasi-religious fate, or even a true ending at all. Instead, Haneke's film is about perpetual disconnection, and the forces that propel us from one city, country or continent to another in search of prosperity or maybe just mere survival.
Like rippling circles from a splash of water, Code Unknown observes a random skirmish on a Paris streetcorner in order to follow the persons involved, independently of each other, long after the original incident. (Haneke is more concerned with the ripples than the splash). The incident is filmed in a long, magnificent tracking shot: While walking down the avenue with his older brother's girlfriend, Anne (Juliette Binoche), an unlikable French teen named Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) callously throws a crumpled paper bag into the outstretched hands of Maria, a disheveled Romanian woman (Luminita Gheorghiu) begging for change. An appalled observer named Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), an African immigrant, insists Jean apologize. Scuffling ensues, and the police, unconcerned with the real facts, simply arrest the foreigners and set the white teenager free.
After the Good Samaritan act goes haywire, Maria, the Romanian woman, turns out to be an illegal alien and gets deported. Jean, a petulant dreamer stuck on his dad's farm, resolves to flee. Anne, an actress caught in a series of claustrophobic movie roles, tries to reconcile her relationship with Jean's brother Georges (Thierry Neuvic), a war photographer. And for Amadou, it's another lesson by way of culture clash: Keep your head down and forget about doing the right thing.
If this litany of stories and characters seems overwhelming, that's the point. Code Unknown is presented in fragmented vignettes that often begin after the action has started and cut away before it's finished, amplifying the characters' inability to comprehend their continual sense of displacement, let alone others'. No wonder the movie is bookended by a group of deaf children playing a game of charades where nobody can guess the right answers.
Haneke is a moralist who knows better than to get preachy, yet Code Unknown implicitly portrays the newly borderless Europe as a melting pot filled with oil and vinegar. Harsh economic realities thrust disparate peoples together while cultural friction keeps them at arm's length. That streetcorner fracas? It should have easily been resolved, but the chasm between one person's viewpoint and another's could never be bridged.
After a decade of relative obscurity (at least as far as American audiences are concerned), all six of Haneke's films arrive in town this month. At Cinema 21, Code Unknown follows The Piano Teacher, Haneke's astonishing Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner from last year, while the Northwest Film Center is in the middle of a retrospective of his earlier work. Three of those four films--1989's The Seventh Continent, 1992's Benny's Video and 1994's 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance--form a trilogy Haneke says is about "progressive emotional glaciation." Yet that could easily describe any of Haneke's work, regardless of its physical, emotional or political topography.
To that end, moviegoers may not usually like ambiguous non-endings, but if Code Unknown remains incomplete upon its final frame, as Haneke suggests, it's no cop-out--but precisely the glimmer of hope we need.
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515.
7 pm Friday- Thursday, May 3-9. Additional shows noon and 2:15 pm Saturday-Sunday.