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code unknown - a movie review

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my review of michael haneke's 2000 film code unknown (i refer to it as code inconnu in the review because it was shown on the sundance channel with the french title) in relation to the themes of prejudice and discrimination within the movie. it contains a full summary so skip the second half of the first paragraph if you do not want spoilers.

josef bierbichler, juliette binoche, and therry neuvic

Code inconnu, a film that was originally released in 2000 and had its American release in 2001 under the translated title Code Unknown, is perhaps the most important and relevant movie in relation to our society released in the last ten years. Written and directed by Michael Haneke, the movie shows modern French life through separate characters and interlocking stories. The main character is Anne, played by Juliette Binoche. She is an actress who shares an apartment with her boyfriend Georges (Thierry Neuvic), who is a war photographer stationed in such diverse places as Kosovo and Afghanistan. Georges brother Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) comes to Paris from his fathers (Josef Bierbichler) farm because he does not want to spend his life there, although that is his fathers dream. In the second scene of the movie, Jean casually throws a pastry wrapper into the lap of a beggar named Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), thereby setting off a chain of events that alters the stories of everyone in the movie. Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a music teacher for deaf children, is repulsed by this act and starts fighting with Jean. When the police arrive, Amadou, who is of African descent, is mistreated and taken into custody while the white Jean is free to go. As Maria is an illegal immigrant from Romania with no documentation, she is deported. When she returns to Romania, we do not see the stereotypical life of a beggar woman, that of poverty and despair, but rather the life of a proud woman with a loving family and many friends whom she does not tell her experiences in Paris. Amadous mother (Maimouna Hélène Diarra) and father (Djibril Kouyaté) have arguments about their other children. The father supports greater integration into French society, while the mother is highly critical of the French policies toward and treatment of immigrants. The mothers friend also criticizes Amadou for dating white girls and his sister for having a blonde crew cut. The father, who works as a taxi driver, decides that he needs to return to his homeland and he takes a boat back to Gambia. When Anne is ironing one evening, she hears the sounds of a child crying and screaming for help from another apartment, but the sounds eventually stop. She later receives a letter from an abused child asking her for help. She then attends the burial of the child. Jean and Georges father attempts to coax Jean into staying by buying him a motorcycle, but this action fails because Jean writes a note to his father saying that he is leaving. This prompts the father to kill all the livestock on the farm and to destroy the field that he plows. Anne has a frightening experience on the Paris Metro when a young man harasses her about being in the upper class and looking down at people like him. Eventually, an older man forces him to leave the train. Throughout these events, we see Anne auditioning for and performing in movies and Georges writing letters to Anne while his photographs are shown. The movie ends as it begins, with a deaf child acting out emotions and the other children trying to guess.

Such a detailed plot description is necessary in a film like this because each plot twist and character demonstrates an aspect of the difficulty of life in a cosmopolitan society such as the Paris that is portrayed. This is not a love letter to Paris as many movies, such as the recent Amélie, are. This film is a totally realistic portrayal of the problems and prejudices that the world currently faces. It is perhaps better to start with a topic not directly related to prejudice, that of the decline of rural and agricultural societies. The life that Jean has back home on the farm is more comfortable and much more stress-free than the life that he would have in Paris. However, the issue of boredom and a lack of satisfaction with the life that he currently leads is one that is crucial to understanding his desire for moving away. Urban flight is also demonstrated by Amadous familys move from Gambia to France. Nevertheless, the reason for their leaving is not one of boredom. Rather, it is a desire to get away from the problems of society that they face in their home country. The movie shows us, though, that there are problems everywhere, whether it is in Gambia or in Paris.

The first problem that is directly demonstrated in the film, in the second but truly introductory scene, is a disrespect toward homeless people. Jean carelessly throws a scrunched up wrapper in the lap of Maria. As the New Yorker review of the movie says, this is a single casual actrude and indifferent, rather than actively bad. However, it still demonstrates the tremendous lack of empathy with homeless people that is experienced by the majority of our society. One of the movies great strengths is to show that each person has a story, no matter how secondary or insignificant the story may seem. Had Jean realized this fact that every person is human and deserving of respect, the incident would not have occurred. This simple gesture is the single most important gesture in the film because it truly demonstrates the ignorance of our entire society. Another intriguing way that Haneke shows the plight of homeless people is a story that Maria tells. She recounts that she saw a gypsy beggar in Romania and was about to give her some money. Yet when she saw her very dirty outstretched hand, she felt repulsed. The same thing happened to her in Paris when she was begging. The repulsion that she felt once again serves to demonstrate the lack of empathy that society feels toward different groups; in this case, that group is the homeless. The recollection shows that through her recent experiences, Maria is able to empathize with the person whom she previously hurt because she has experienced the same thing. This is how prejudice can stop. Finally, the fact that Maria is portrayed as a woman who is respected in her community and is well off economically and socially in her homeland serves to reinforce the idea that everyone has a story, and that it is simply the ignorance of society that does not reveal those stories and allow them to be thought about.

The second issue of prejudice and diversity that is confronted is the treatment of minorities, in this case blacks and Arabs, at the official government level. The first major demonstration of prejudice that we see is the polices treatment of the fight between Amadou and Jean. Jean is released and is free to go, although he is the perpetrator of the act that caused the fight. Amadou is not nearly as lucky, though. He is forcefully taken into police custody. His mother later says that he was beaten and that their apartment was ripped apart. Jeans house was not touched. The incident that demonstrates the difficulty of answering the questions of prejudice and diversity in a multicultural cosmopolitan society is the scene on the Paris Metro. There, we see Anne being taunted by a young Arab man (Walid Afkir). He tells her that she is beautiful, but criticizes her for being a member of the high society that looks down on scum like him. He continues to taunt her about being one of the members of the beautiful upper class, asking her, Dont talk to commoners? He accuses her of being arrogant. She changes seats, but he does not relent. He continues to taunt and criticize her, saying that, the lady is in the subway with the tramps. He then spits on her. Eventually, an older Arab man (Maurice Bénichou) sitting next to her stands up to the young man and defends Anne. At the end of the scene, she starts crying. This is a scene that represents the contrast of a multicultural society. It is absolutely true that what the Arab young man has done is totally wrong. It is never appropriate to criticize and disrespect other people, particularly strangers on a train. However, he does not do it simply to be mean. He does it because of the conditions that he grows up in. He does not live as an equal to the people of French extraction around him. He is a foreigner, and he is treated as such. Therefore, he criticizes Anne for being the stereotype of what he perceives as his oppressors. This is the best demonstration of the multiple sides of modern society. Annes crying at the end of the scene shows that she will never be exactly the same as she was before. As the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane puts it, this is how prejudice starts; from hereon, Anne will, despite herself, be a little more racist, or at least ethnophobic, than before, andthis has to be saidshe will have cause to feel that way. The double-edged sword of prejudice is demonstrated brilliantly by Haneke here in this contrast between two levels of society.

The third issue demonstrated in this movie is that of societys ignorance of domestic abuse. Anne is ironing and watching television one night. Suddenly, there are sounds that seem to not be coming from the television. She turns off the television, and she hears the horrific screams and wails of a child, probably being beaten. She listens for a while and the sounds stop. She then proceeds to turn on the television and continues ironing. In another scene, we see her receive a letter signed oppressed child. She asks her neighbor whether she wrote it, but she insists she did not. She then argues about it with her boyfriend, but she ultimately does nothing. We later see her attending the funeral of the child. Although it is true that Anne probably could have not confronted the parents directly, she chose to ignore something that was going on in front of her eyes. The act of turning on the television after hearing something so terrible is a metaphor for what society does regarding domestic abuse. We would rather watch the television than the face the facts about what is going on.

The final issue of diversity is that of integration. When Amadous father confronts his brother Demba (Domeke Meite), he asks Demba about what happened to cause Dembas classmate to accuse him of using drugs. Amadous mother says that he believes the white teacher and the white classmate over his own black son. She says that it is obvious that she would suspect the black kid over the two white kids. The fathers sister (Marany Pofana) then proceeds to say how bad an example Amadou is setting by going out with white girls and criticizes his sister (Aïssa Maïga), who is black, for having a yellow crew cut. The yellow color symbolizes her attempts to be white while the crew cut aspect of it probably implies that she is trying to be masculine, something that is not done in the traditional society. The father has a much greater trust for white people than his wife. Haneke shows us the difficulty of finding a comfortable place on the spectrum between hatred and assimilation. A good indication of this is when Amadou is telling his little deaf sister that their father has gone back to Africa. She asks, Where is Africa?

These portrayals are some of the most accurate and unbiased that I have seen in any movie. Haneke demonstrates complete empathy toward the characters and situations in this film, and he shows the difficulty of finding one right answer. This is a portrait of what life really is like for millions of different people. It is important to have such realistic portrayals because, as Richard Falcon, film critic for Sight and Sound magazine, puts it, the film is about responsibility. The portrayal is very helpful because it truly encourages the audience to think about its actions, preconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudices and to act in a responsible way toward everyone, including the different minority groups in the film. This is indeed the ultimate lesson in the film. While Haneke deals with ignorance of all sorts in Code Inconnu, he shows that it is necessary to act responsibly toward everyone. We need to be aware of our surroundings and respect the different people around us. As members of society, we share a responsibility toward others in the society and we cannot to simply act alone without benefiting from anyones help or providing anyone with that help. After all, everyone, even some homeless person on the street, has a story.

the scene on the metro

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