Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Variations of an Archetypal Scene: The Paris Metro Confrontation in Michael Haneke's Code Unknown

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Variations of an Archetypal Scene: The Paris Metro Confrontation in Michael Haneke's Code Unknown

Article excerpt

Introduction

In modern art and popular culture, the claustrophobic and densely packed spaces of public transportation have emerged as key metaphors for social relations. Not least in urban cinema, subway carriages have often been depicted as testing grounds for class relations, and with cities becoming more multicultural as sites of interethnic tension. This paper is concerned with variations of one such scene, which consists of a confrontation between two or more subway passengers who stand in as types for larger groups in the city. Specifically, the focus is on Michael Haneke's film Code Unknown (2000), in which the white female protagonist Anne (Juliette Binoche) is verbally harassed and spat on by a young Beur (1) man (Walid Afkir) on the Paris Metro. This long tense scene, which is shot in real time, has explicit class, gender, and racial overtones and is situated within a film that has typically been viewed as a comment on contemporary European multiculturalism. Yet, rather than analysing Code Unknown in isolation, I want to examine its Metro scene in relation to a string of thematically similar confrontations on underground rail in both American and French cinema. Thus, the paper has two interconnected aims: first, to draw on a range of films and interdisciplinary urban literature to illuminate how subterranean public transport has become a key allegorical setting for interracial encounters in cinema. Second, against this backdrop, to contribute to discussions of what Catherine Wheatley (2009, page 5) has called "Haneke's critical aesthetic" by analysing the formal innovations that distinguish his Metro scene from its predecessors. While doing so I will remain sensitive to the limitations of Haneke's formalism by highlighting ways in which Code Unknown ultimately reproduces problematic discourses of urban space.

I begin with a genealogy of the interracial subway scene, which first emerged in American cinema in the late 1960s and 1970s, where above all, it became a stock feature of films set in New York City. Following this, I discuss how variations of this scene appear in French films in the 1980s and 1990s, often directly influenced by American cinema, but also reflecting changes in Paris's underground transport infrastructure. Considering that Haneke is a vocal critic of American(ised) entertainment violence, it is, then, potentially productive to place his Metro scene directly in relation to the type of cinema he purports to critique. Having described his oeuvre as "a protest against the mainstream cinema" and in explicit opposition to "American cultural imperialism" (Badt, 2005), Haneke has specifically suggested that his films should be viewed as "polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator" (cited in Frey, 2010). Thus, my analysis will pay particular attention to the crucial role of the spectator in the Metro scene and in Haneke's formal repertoire more broadly.

Often considered "the last 'grand' auteur of European art cinema" (Grundmann, 2010, page 26), Haneke makes films that are engaged with on very serious terms, and Code Unknown is no exception in this regard. In a review essay specifically highlighting Haneke's deployment of modernist formalism to problematise the relationship between representation and reality, Richard Falcon (2001) called Code Unknown "the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally provocative piece of European cinema of recent times". In a similar vein, an early scholarly essay by Robin Wood (2003, page 1) deemed it "perhaps the most important film of the past ten years" and argued that it should be viewed as a progressive critique of the fragmentation and individualisation under late capitalism. In France, as Wheatley (2009, page 129) has discussed, Code Unknown was interpreted specifically as about contemporary French politics and appropriated by groups on both the left and the right wings of the political spectrum. …

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