The Author’s Signature: A Conversation with Michael Haneke
Acutely attuned to the drama of intimate relationships and interactions, writer-director-producer Sean Durkin mines their dynamics for his quietly simmering character studies. Best known for his feature debut, Martha Macy May Marlene, which premiered at Sundance in 2011 and won him an award for best director, Durkin also cofounded Borderline Films with Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, and has served as producer on such acclaimed films as Afterschool, Simon Killer, and James White. Since directing the BAFTA-nominated British miniseries Southcliffe for Channel 4, he’s returned to feature filmmaking with his second directorial achievement, The Nest, an exquisitely acted 1980s-set family drama starring Carrie Coon and Jude Law.
When we asked Durkin if he wanted to talk about a favorite scene from a film in our collection, he chose a moment from Code Unknown (2000), Michael Haneke’s provocative examination of urban Europe at the turn of the millennium. Juliette Binoche takes center stage in this scene, which utilizes the film’s single-take style to particularly unnerving effect. In this article, edited together from a conversation between Durkin and Criterion’s Hillary Weston, the filmmaker examines the scene’s devastating subtlety and how it influenced his own approach to storytelling.
I saw Code Unknown during my first semester as a film student. It was 2003, so in order to watch anything I had to go to the video store or the NYU library, which has a really great collection. After one of my professors showed a clip of Funny Games in class, I went to the library and watched every Michael Haneke film they had, and it was Code Unknown that left the deepest imprint on me. As in many of his early films, Haneke lets the scenes play out in wide shots without feeling the need to constantly cut in to emphasize emotion. In this restraint I found a freedom.
When I was in college, everyone was trying to be Wes Anderson or David Fincher. Those are two directors whose work I love and admire, but seeing Haneke’s films, with their long, single takes and lack of artifice, felt especially fresh to me. Everything seems real, like you’re watching it all take place on the street in front of you; every piece of clothing and every detail seems pulled from life. I wasn’t used to seeing that on-screen, and it influenced what I wanted to make. When you’re starting out making films, you’re faced with so many decisions, and it can be quite overwhelming, so it was healthy for my brain to learn that doing less could actually capture something truthful and full of emotion.
Code Unknown is an ensemble film that drops in and out of the lives of a group of characters, spreading out from a single incident at the beginning and letting you see its ripple effects. It’s a film about the things that happen in people’s lives that you wouldn’t know upon meeting them. You get an understanding of where the characters come from and why they’re behaving the way they do without anything being explained to you.
Early on we meet Juliette Binoche’s character, an actress named Anne. We get the sense that she’s had some success and is working hard and living with a certain amount of privilege that she’s probably unaware of. We get these views of her daily life: an audition where she gets to an emotional place that’s deeper than anything else she shows us in the film; a scene in which she’s recording a voice-over with another actor that suggests unexplored feelings.