Whether Michael Winterbottom’s films are dire or delightful—and they’ve been both—they’ve always had the advantage of coming from someplace the director had never been before. Even the ones that shared common themes or sources—Yugoslavia’s implosion in Welcome to Sarajevo and Wonderland, Thomas Hardy novels for Jude and The Claim—were distinguished by dissimilar forms and unrelated geography. Winterbottom’s latest, Code 46, once again undertakes a fresh genre in a new locale. But its themes are familiar, both from the director’s last two movies and from a recent boomlet in Alzheimer’s-era lost-love stories.
Scripted by Winterbottom regular Frank Cottrell Boyce, Code 46 is the director’s first science-fiction flick. But its notion of modern—that is, future—life as a slightly ominous nonstop bender echoes 24 Hour Party People, and its depiction of global nomads and capricious borders derives from In This World. Narratively, the movie is a romance, although the rapport between illicit lovers William (Tim Robbins) and Maria (Samantha Morton) is as unconvincing as the hi-tech pretext for keeping them apart.
Finally, Code 46 is a Digital Age extrapolation on the silent-era “city symphony”; it grabs jumbo servings of ambience from a teeming Asian metropolis, much as Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation did.
Winterbottom and his crew didn’t have a big budget, so their choice of location was crucial. They selected Shanghai, a neon-dappled human hive that’s currently in the midst of a massive modernization campaign. Making Shanghai look like Tomorrowland is no great challenge, requiring much less careful framing than Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, an early example of a sci-fi art film shot entirely in a contemporary city. (Pity that Winterbottom didn’t get to shoot on Shanghai’s new maglev train, though.) Code 46 also includes sequences shot in Dubai, another town that’s recently gotten an extreme makeover, and a few views of Hong Kong (substituting, oddly enough, for Seattle).
Aside from flamboyant recent architecture, the film’s futuristic signifiers are ethnicity and language. When William arrives in Shanghai, he finds a city whose population is of diverse origins but entirely English-speaking. In this future, however, the language has absorbed certain key words from such leading 20th-century tongues as Chinese, French, Arabic, and Spanish: “Hello” is now “ni hao,” “so long” is “a bientot,” and the crucial document required to pass from one zone to another is a “papelle.”
Maria works for a company that makes papelles, and William arrives to investigate how unauthorized ones are being produced and smuggled out. Maria is the culprit, of course, and William—who, thanks to an “empathy virus,” is intuitive—immediately knows it. Yet he doesn’t implicate Maria to her boss (Om Puri), because he feels a strong and instant bond to her. William accompanies Maria to a karaoke club, where Winterbottom tops Bill Murray warbling Elvis Costello: He has Mick Jones singing along to his own “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Then William and Maria go to her place, where they make love. The next morning, William has to pull himself away from a frantically enamored Maria to make his flight back home to Seattle and his wife (a sadly underutilized Jeanne Balibar).
Ready to know what “Code 46” is? It’s the Tomorrowland regulation that forbids people who are more than 25 percent genetically identical from breeding. Because of advanced reproductive techniques, inadvertent incest is a growing problem and is handled pre-emptively. As soon as someone or something—it’s not clear who or how—determines that Maria is pregnant by in-vitro kissing cousin William, she’s bustled off to a clinic. There Maria undergoes not only a forced abortion, but also a brain-wipe removing all memories of William. The latest thing in cinematic medical procedures, Maria’s love-removal operation makes Code 46 25 percent genetically identical to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Lots of movies shove their central characters into an instant relationship for the purposes of the plot, without worrying that the onscreen chemistry just isn’t there. William and Maria’s affair is particularly abrupt, and there’s a reason why the chilly Robbins and the exotic Morton both usually play outsiders. (Even the tender, humane In America cast Morton as half of an emotionally iced-over couple.) Code 46’s excuse for its hastiness is that the lovers are related and thus feel an immediate bond—never mind that lots of people abhor their blood relatives. The overstuffed yet sometimes sketchy script doesn’t bother to explain exactly how its Big Brothers monitor Code 46, or why William and Maria’s mating must lead to conception. Couldn’t he have just used a—wait, what’s the Arabic word for “condom”?
Compelled to return to Maria, William revisits Shanghai, where he learns what’s happened. The couple then flees “outside” to the unregulated (and fictional) frontier region of Jebal’ali. It’s actually Dubai and Jaipur, a northern Indian state that looks a lot like the dusty Pakistani area where In This World began. Thus the films seem to have come full circle. But there’s still another turn to come, tying the conclusion to the introductory sequence detailing a recurring dream of Maria’s—and to the sleepwalk vibe established by the Free Association’s trance-rock score, which resembles Kevin Shields’ Lost in Translation work.
Ultimately, the film seems to resolve that a genetically manipulated, drug-enhanced, authoritarian future will be simultaneously scary and kind of groovy. Though that conclusion draws on both 24 Hour Party People and In This World, it doesn’t expand on either of them. As an exercise in globe-hopping atmospherics, Code 46 is dynamic, even intoxicating. But rather than further investigate the world that Winterbottom has lately engaged with wit and insight, it detours into peripheral territory.
The new film from Russian Ark director Alexander Sokurov also explores the intense bond between two kinsfolk and makes symbolic use of a distinctive city. There’s no Code 46 violation here, however: Father and Son contemplates a 40-ish widower and his 20-ish son, who live in a private world that women seldom enter. And rather than anticipate the future, the film evokes a Russian past that no post-Gorbachev city, apparently, can represent. The picturesquely narrow and hilly streets that the son wanders with a guest may denote a Black Sea port, but they’re actually in Lisbon.
The movie opens with extreme close-ups of two near-naked men in embrace, their flesh bathed in golden Old Master light. Comforting him after a nightmare, the father (Andrey Schetinin) cradles his son, Alexei (Aleksey Neymyshev), stroking his hair. This sensuous reverie appears homoerotic, although Sokurov has angrily denied the suggestion. The director should know what he intended, of course, and it’s true that his work is usually anything but carnal: Ghosts and shadows are among his principal characters, and he’s made an entire series of Elegies. Also, Father and Son’s opening recalls Mother and Son, the first in Sokurov’s planned trilogy of filial rhapsodies. In that film, however, the son carries an elderly woman who’s too weak to move. This time, the parent is manifestly robust—he’s often seen shirtless, lifting weights, or hopping across rooftops—although he has some unexplained lung condition that’s seemingly connected to his service in an unnamed war (Afghanistan, presumably).
By comparison with its minimalist maternal predecessor, Father and Son, scripted by Sergei Potepalov, is a narrative banquet: Dad visits his son at the military academy the younger man attends; Alexei has two strained conversations with his Botticelli-esque ex-girlfriend (Marina Zasukhina); the son (Fedor Lavrov) of one of the father’s former colleagues arrives, looking for news of his missing dad; and Alexei’s friend and neighbor Sasha (Alexander Razbash) expresses his desire to move in with the film’s central duo. The dramatic engine, such as it is, runs on the son’s jealousy of any other young man who might take some of his father’s time, however fleetingly. When potential rivalry isn’t in force, father and son mostly exchange compliments or discuss the possibilities that they will always be together or that they must someday part.
Whatever this wisp of a story means to Sokurov, it’s unlikely to engage most viewers. Yet the film is beguiling nonetheless, thanks to its honeyed light, impeccable compositions, otherworldly aura, and intricate sound mix, which mingles distant voices and fragments of Tchaikovsky (adapted by composer Andrey Sigle) with what sounds like the static of the spheres. The dream sequences, shot with anamorphic lenses, resemble Mother and Son’s, but where that movie was pastoral and hushed, this one is urban and brimming with virile clatter. Misty and inexplicable yet red-blooded, Father and Son is an exercise in macho lyricism.CP