“Code 46” – a film to rip apart down to one scene


Has it ever happened that you liked a movie for its aesthetics and one scene that stood out? I re-watched Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 and that scene still held its grip on me. Overall, the imagery, the visual flow, doubled by the music, created again that intoxicating atmosphere I tasted with the same pleasure as the first time I had seen it.

As with the last film I reviewed, I have some history with this movie too. Years ago, as a journalist in Bucharest, I used to attend a variety of film and theatre festivals. While the job did not pay tremendously well – I still shared a flat with two other people – I thoroughly enjoyed the perk of watching plays and movies for free. Reviewing what I watched, if good or bad enough to print in a newspaper, came with the job.

I used to cover the British Film Festival regularly. As I tended to follow the work of independent movie directors, I put two Winterbottom movies on my to see list, in two different years. These movies happened to be quite different from one another. To the day, The Road to Guantanamo docu-drama remained my favourite Winterbottom production. It even inspired me to write a political poem in my second poetry collection published in Romania.

The other movie, Code 46, caught my attention with a very different set of elements. A short lived, passionate and dramatic love story grows and dies on a terrifyingly familiar dystopian background.

A world born of climate change and genetic manipulation

In the opening scene,  writing hovers over a desert view to explain what Code 46 means. This law, enforceable at an international level, prohibits sexual relations between people with similar DNA strings. The necessity for such a regulation appeared on a quite possible background. After decades of in vitro fertilisation and genetic manipulation, a considerable number of people ended up with similar DNA. Labs spread all across cities offer quick tests to lovers who intend to get married and have children. Pregnancies breaking Code 46 are terminated.

Does this sound dystopian enough? It gets better. The movie builds a science fiction world both frightening and fascinating. As the camera rolls over stretches of desert, the main type of outdoors landscape, the view looks scarier and more possible than ever. The thought shook me and I don’t remember having had the same reaction when I first watched it. Back then the collapse of the current global system did not seem so close as it does now.

Code46 desert

Today, more than ever before, the world seems to head in the direction of widespread ecological disaster, just like in Winterbottom’s Code 46. The world on the screen exists in two different settings – cities and the outside. They even call it the outside. In cities, people no longer walk the streets in daylight, to avoid sun radiations and their ill effects on health. They work at night and shelter in the day, but only those who live in cities benefit from this lifestyle. The ones on the outside have no such option, they live in poor communities. Travel in between cities is regulated. Travellers need permits, called papeles, to exit and enter urban areas. Outsiders cannot enter a city and many flock at the transit points to try and sale their wares.

An investigation ends with a love story

In this thought-provoking dystopian world, a strange love story is born. A man flies to Shanghai to investigate a case of papeles smuggling out of a factory. Workers resort to such methods for money, selling fakes to people otherwise not allowed to travel. Usually, such restrictions are based on health concern. Those prevented from travelling tend to present high risks to outside conditions. It sounds reasonable enough. However, this system places choice entirely in the hands of decision makers. It deprives individuals from taking informed risks which only affect them and nobody else.

The investigator sees all the workers on the line where the smuggled papeles were printed. One of them, a girl he bumped into as he arrived, indirectly asks him out. It’s her birthday and she is heading to a club right after work. The situation gets complicated as, obviously, the investigator ends up sleeping with a possible suspect.

code46 lovers

Later, the viewer learns that this is not the main difficulty in the romantic relation between the two. The investigator and the young woman share similar DNAs, and they should not engage sexually. As you imagine, the whole affair ends badly.

Where Code 46 fails and where it stands

While the story sounds intriguing enough and the world dystopian enough, my partner pointed out to a few big gaps in both.  Honestly, I agreed with him on all accounts, which slightly changed my perception on the movie. Now I don’t class it any longer as a great film, but rather one interesting enough to worth watching.

First, Adrian picked on the whole papeles system very quickly. It did not sound feasible to him that international travel relied on such unidimensional permits. These papeles seemed incredibly difficult to extend. While this criticism stands, I will give the writer the benefit of a doubt. They wrote Code 46 before the digital era. Nowadays, with the technology we have in place, such a global travelling system feels more possible. Renewal would be only a click away.

Second, he identified some erratic behaviour on the part of the investigator, which did not make much sense. I agree on this aspect, particularly on how the love story between the two ends. While clothed in that special aura given by the quality of light and visual flow, with the camera gliding over spaces and fixating on beautiful or obsessive details, the way the two lovers get caught doesn’t make much sense. It looks and sounds beautiful, like the whole movie does, but it escapes logic in essential points.

However, Winterbottom’s movie stands for me for the cinematic and audio quality, and that one particular scene which keeps haunting me.

The fight between induced fear and chosen love

Despite being forbidden by law from having any intimate relation, the two lovers meet again. They choose to live the moment and disregard the legal consequences. However, something unexpected happens.

The young woman was identified, after their first encounter, as pregnant with a man who shared a very similar DNA with her. They terminated her pregnancy and injected her with a virus which triggers visceral fear in her if she ends up sexually aroused by the same man. Every time they try to have sex, she starts pulling away. She desires him, but her body enters panic mode. But she doesn’t give up. She asks her lover to tie her to the bed and make love to her. An intense scene, of bliss and horror, their love making captures the essence of the whole movie for me.

Too often through history social and legal systems told people whom they could and couldn’t have a relationship with. Individuals end up paying the bill for failing social, economical and political systems. These two lovers shared similar DNAs due to faults in the way their world was led. Less restrictive options should have been available to them.

I found something else fascinating – how the woman’s emotional reaction overcame her physical fright. That is what sticks in my brain. She loved him and found a way to be with him, fighting the fear back and allowing the positive emotion to win. If that is not a highly romantic goal, then nothing is.

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