Code 46 (2004)

There’s always going to be restrictions and laws placed on human behavior, in an attempt to control the chaotic nature of human nature.
— Tim Robbins, “Obtaining Cover: Inside Code 46

If you say that you are mine.
I’ll be here until the end of time.
— The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go”

According to screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, “The 20th century was the Freud century, and the 21st century’s going to be the genetics century.” This is an underlying premise of the movie he’s made with Michael Winterbottom, Code 46, newly released to DVD. Though it features precious few extras (a basic making-of documentary and four deleted scenes), the DVD reminds you why the director is so well respected, as much for his attention to everyday detail as his political passion and aesthetic ambition.

His first essay into science fiction (that is, set in a near, vaguely dystopian, and wholly recognizable future), Code 46 is cryptic, eccentric, and poetic. It posits a foregone class system in which the possibilities are named, explicitly, the inside and the outside. The outside, the “afuera,” appears first: it’s an emptied desert viewed from above, titled with a series of epigraphs that set the situation, namely, the world’s population lives in a generalized police state, in which movements and interrelations are closely monitored, primarily to assuage “incest anxiety,” now designated by a legal statute, “Code 46.” The reasons for such concern emerge gradually, as the film takes an oblique route through its social and political observations, rather than slamming straight through some rote bad-future plot.

As Boyce (who also wrote Welcome to Sarajevo and The Claim) tells it in the DVD’s “Obtaining Cover: Inside Code 46,” the initial idea had to do with a “version of Oedipus,” focused on “the inescapability of fate.” To this end, the movie takes up questions concerning relation (familial, emotional, geographical) and mobility, as well as understanding and control, all increasingly functions of technology as we speak (Samantha Morton notes in the documentary that “the stuff that’s in the film is actually happening now, we’re just choosing not to focus on it and see it”).

All this policing stems from the now well-established practice of cloning, which has brought with it the dangers already (today) anticipated, and then some. In this context, the spatial metaphors — inside and outside, national and class boundaries — are magnified. The film doesn’t explain or even much press its story or its cautions, but instead immerses you in its world, with references to depleted resources (a damaged ozone layer makes sunlight toxic), cast off and anonymous workers, careless upper class denizens, and a mix of languages spoken by everyone (Spanish, French, Chinese, and English) that only underlines the artifice of all borders.

Inspired by the director’s own experience working on In This World, including difficulties keeping traveling papers in order for cast and crew, Code 46 also considers the legal niceties that complicate daily existence and frustrate, bore, and repress individuals. The scattered nature of identity — as a concept and experience — is reflected in the film’s complex array of locations (shot by two exceptional cinematographers who have both worked with Winterbottom in the past — Alwin Kulcher (The Claim) and Marcel Zyskind (24 Hour Party People, In This World). Shot in London, China, India, and the United Arab Emirates, on an extraordinarily low budget ($7.5 million), the film makes use of in-place, slightly futuristic architecture rather than built sets, using film (35mm) and a very mobile crew of only 15. As Robbins recalls for the documentary, the shoot took on a “guerilla filmmaking mode,” as there wasn’t “an awful lot of control in Shanghai.”

All this to create the effect of too much control, even in the early moments, when narrator Maria (Morton) watches (or remembers, or imagines — it’s hard to tell at first) the activities of Seattle-based insurance investigator William (Tim Robbins). He doesn’t know it, but he’s en route to meeting Maria at the factory where she works on a sterile assembly line making “papelles,” papers that allow bearers restricted travel, for specific purposes.

She imagines what he might have been thinking as he approached her, using assorted tenses — present, past, past perfect — to indicate conjectures as well as events, memories as well as fantasies. “The thing I can’t imagine,” she says, “is that we had not met.” It is, in the end, Maria’s story, as she will be left alone, by William’s choice, his selfishness and his willful ignorance. By film’s end, her awareness, acute and evocative, is also agonizing. By film’s end, Maria’s strength underscores William’s utter fragility, and by extension, the weakness of the society of rules and restrictions and fears that he represents, even if he doesn’t know it.

As she tells her story (and William’s, for he will not remember his own), Maria harbors not malice, but wonder. As William walks through the airport, she notes, “You’d never been to Shanghai before”), observing as a car carries him through the desert to the city’s heavily guarded gates; he appears amiable, buying candies from one seller (Nabil Elouahabi), among a scuttling crowd of unfortunates seeking the attentions of approved (and by definition, relatively affluent) travelers, even as his driver (Togo Igawa) warns, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage them.”

This purchase proves oddly meaningful (though also just coincidental), in that Maria, whom William is about to meet, likes them. Their relationship is to be laced through with seeming coincidences, leading to the film’s interweaving of fate, genetics, and, most disturbingly, the distinctions between seeing options and accepting conformity. Citizens focus on getting by day to day, with the help of domestic organizing devices that emulate personal attention (greeting you by name, monitoring your activities). Such allusions to current overmediated acquiescence appear in an oddly abstract image, a dream Maria has every year on her birthday. She describes it to the “you” of her voiceover, William, detailing her ride on a subway that takes her one stop further each year, all the way until this year, which appears to be the “last stop.” That is, William is her fate, which she has been both dreading and seeking all her life.

Outside Maria’s dreams, William is assigned to discover the culprit who’s been passing papelles illegally, that is, granting travel to folks not approved by the government (the time is called “cover”). He intuits immediately that Maria is the offender. He later reveals to her that he is only able to do his work with the help of an “empathy virus,” which means his vague instruction in each interview (“Tell me something about yourself”) is always irrelevant. It also means his work is a function of bodily manipulations, again at the genetic level, and that his seeming gift, or skill, is a deception: anyone could do his job, if properly infected.

Following the interviews, William identifies one of Maria’s coworkers as the perpetrator, then, when she’s free to go, pursues her on the street, into the subway (recalling her dream, for you, anyway). They flirt, have drinks in a karaoke bar (where the Clash’s Mick Jones performs “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”, again naming the film’s thematic interests in mobility and choice), and she shows him precisely how she delivers the illegal papelles, passing a set on to a friend, Damien (David Fahm). Both Maria and William (whose wife Sylvie [Jeanne Balibar] and young son [Taro Sherabayani] await him in Seattle) appear impressed by each other’s rebellious, deceitful behaviors, and they end up in bed.

Throughout this sequence, their tenderness — including her tears the next morning when his own cover is up, and he must leave — seems odd, given their lack of nonsexual intimacy. But then, Code 46 is less concerned with the standard strategies of film romance than with the nuances of desire and fate, and perhaps more significantly, the ways that each is affected by state regulations and class systems. It is about hierarchies of knowledge, the values of memory and the loss of self.

When William learns, on returning home, that Maria has been punished for their interlude (and has not implicated him during her processing), he engineers a sort of “rescue,” busting her out of the institution where she’s housed, without any obvious plan for a future. He decides how and where they travel, how and where they will rest, knowing that she is infected with a virus that will thwart their escape.

That is, as Maria says in voiceover, “You must have known the way the virus works. Was there nothing you could do to stop me?” And at this moment — as you see her past and hear her present — you know. William’s simultaneous selfishness and selflessness, his choice to leave her with their story even as he will no longer have it (or her), results from his understanding of science, genetics, viruses, and mobility. He remains inside. And she knows. The film leaves open whose fate is worse.