Code 46

Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 is a film of sonic and visual textures. It’s science fiction, depicting a world in which genetic screening is the key to everything, including what jobs you can get, where and when you are permitted to travel, and — most important? — who you can have (reproductive) sex with. There are also wall-sized video screens, and everything is protected by personal (spoken) passwords and fingerprint scanners.
But the world of the film is largely recognizable, despite the high technology. Locations alternate between dense urban landscapes, with skyscrapers, anonymously bureaucratic offices and medical facilities, crowds, subways, and security checkpoints (these parts of the film were shot in Shanghai), and seemingly endless deserts (shot in Dubai). Like Godard’s Alphaville and Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, there’s no fancy F/X, but rather a sense of how the future is already immanent, and imminent, in the present of when the film was shot and first seen.
Winterbottom’s images are flat, with ambient lighting; the camera is often handheld, though less skittery than handheld camerawork often is. Everything in this world is polygot: the people are ethnically and racially mixed (though white privilege has clearly not been altogether effaced), whether the locale is supposed to be Shanghai, Seattle, or the Arabian peninsula, and they speak an English mixed with scraps of other languages (mostly Spanish and French, though Arabic and Mandarin are suggested as well). The music, usually warm techno, creates a dreamy ambiance, one of longing and semi-detachment: sadness filtered, softened, and distanced through a calming antidepressant haze, perhaps.
This is the same sense of floating displacement, the same wavering affect (partly calm and partly vaguely nostalgic, neither sincere nor ironic, but giving a sense that indifference has become a sort of engagement), that we get in other pomo/internationalist films, like Lost in Translation or Last Life in the Universe, or any number of films by the likes of Johnnie To and Wong Kar Wai and Shunji Iwai. Films like these are exploring, and articulating, the sensory feel, and the unfamiliar affects — at once frenzied and cool — of the new post-televisual, transnational multimediascape that we are starting to find ourselves living in.
Nomadic displacement is a positive condition in all these films — it is primary, rather than being seen as the negation of some supposed sense of place, or of rootedness.
What distinguishes Code 46 from these other films is that it shows how the “society of control” is inextricably interwoven with the sense of possibility that comes from decentered flows. For instance: access to everything is regulated by a series of personalizing markers (password, fingerprint, various sorts of permissions that can alter from one moment to the next –you are free to travel for the next 24 hours, but you will be blocked after that). These markers determine whether you can remain “inside” (in the metropolis) or whether you are relegated to the “outside” (which seems to be mostly desert. Inside is much more secure, and materially comfortable, than outside. But both inside and outside are nomadic and decentered, both seem to involve a life of slipping and sliding between alternatives, with nothing that is definitive. There’s a rigid binary, which is a real distinction, but the conditions on both sides of the binary are structurally homologous — both are exemplary instances of postmodern drift.
Genetics is the key to all this: it is the way people are coded. Travel restrictions have to do, for instance, with genetic susceptibility to various diseases that are dangers in various parts of the world. And most important, people with similar DNA are prohibited from having sex (the film is unclear when it comes to nonreproductive sex, whether this be because of contraception or because of same-sex encounters). The drama of Code 46 comes from the fact that the two protagonists (played by Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton), are genetic siblings even though they have never met before — their mothers were clones of each other.
It all works quite oddly in the film. Their life circumstances are so dissimilar, that it would seem their mutual attraction is due to the genetic similarity of which they are both unaware. Yet the film also implies that, due to this dissimilarity of backgrounds and characters, there is nothing psychologically incestuous about their relationship. Indeed, Code 46 seems absolutely devoid of any Freudian overtones (or undertones), even thought it is ultimately about incest. Which in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, suggesting how fully & successfully the film has thought itself into its “postmodern” sensibility.
Of course, this has to do not only with the look and feel of the film, but also with the characters of the protagonists. I adore Samantha Morton, and this film is no exception. The camera dwells on her face in closeup, but her face is too alien for this to work in the traditional “feminine mystique” kind of way. She seems alien, abstracted, withdrawn, as if all her attention were turned inwards, except that this “inwards” is nothing that I could possibly recognize by analogy with my own sense of interiority. She isn’t “mysterious” at all, but just sort of not there… elsewhere? or not anywhere? If anybody embodies a “posthuman” affect, simultaneously cool and intense, it is she. Watching her is like being somehow induced to empathize with something that is entirely beyond my (emotional or intellectual) comprehension. There is nothing blank about her; the blankness I feel watching her on screen is entirely mine.
Robbins, on the other hand, I usually do not like, and again Code 46 is no exception. Unlike Morton, he is all too comprehensible. He seems fussy and a bit condescending, and I’m not convinced that this is all because of the character he is trying to play. It’s as if he doesn’t really fit into this film, or into the world of this film. But perhaps this is the point. There’s absolutely no chemistry between him and Morton, despite the fact that we are supposed to see them as a doomed, tragic romantic couple. But this mismatching is not to the detriment of the film; it seems precisely right, for an emotional connection that isn’t “plausible,” and that isn’t explicable in terms of depth psychology, nor even in terms of unconscious kinship/similarity (nothing in the film makes them seem like siblings, any more than like amour fou lovers).
Not everything in Code 46 works; there are problems in terms of the plot, as well as in terms of certain aspects of the film’s world that are left overly vague. But the film does have an opacity, a kind of affectively charged resistance to the usual sorts of categorization, that I found powerful.

One Response to “Code 46”

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