Warning! This post contains spoilers for Code 46.
There’s a great blog I happened upon recently by Leanne Smith called Film Flam, which mostly consists of scurrilous takes and diatribes regarding the Scottish film ‘industry’. However, for the purposes of this post, I thought I’d steal her incredibly apt description of any Michael Winterbottom film:
“...it’s by Michael Winterbottom, so it’s bound to be boring and weirdly undirected.”
‘Undirected’ is a word you could apply to the entirety of Michael Winterbottom’s filmed output (do you know anyone who’s managed to sit through 9 Songs? And if so, why?). Code 46 is no exception.
Hmmm... where does one begin with a film like Code 46? How about the opening super?
Any human being who shares the same nuclear gene set as another human being is deemed to be genetically identical. The relations of one are the relations of all.
Due to IVF, DI embryo splitting and cloning techniques it is necessary to prevent any accidental or deliberate genetically incestuous reproduction.
I. All prospective parents should be genetically screened before conception. If they have 100%, 50% or 25% genetic identity they are not permitted to conceive
II. If the pregnancy is unplanned, the foetus must be screened. Any pregnancy resulting from 100%, 50% or 25% genetically related parents must be terminated immediately
III. If the parents were ignorant of their genetic relationship then medical intervention is authorized to prevent any further breach of Code 46
IV. If the parents knew they were genetically related prior to conception it is a criminal breach of Code 46.
Got that? Great, ‘cos I didn’t, which immediately put me on the back foot (I know, I’m stupid – I’ll just have to get over it). Things didn’t really improve from that point on...
* The script is by Frank Cottrell Boyce – in any other circumstance, I would no doubt appreciate this, but in the hands of Michael Winterbottom, things get random very quickly. To steal Leanne’s description once again, it all feels curiously ‘undirected’, such as:
a. an interminably lengthy close up of Samantha Morton’s face for no good reason.
b. a completely random flash of nudity which made me go, ‘Uh?’
c. a pile of beautifully composed shots of Shanghai inserted for no other reason than to make people say, ‘Wow, what a beautifully composed shot of Shanghai.’
All of which makes me wonder exactly what FCB’s script might have looked like before Winterbottom got his randomising hands on it – for example, how exactly do you write a ‘scene’ that focuses interminably on an actress’ pained expression whilst Tim Robbins pumps manfully away off screen? Answer: you don’t – you simply hand your script over to Michael Winterbottom who provides a ‘visual interpretation’ that is strikingly at odds with the written word. In any case, I very much suspect the script wasn’t as wildly dull as the end product turned out.
* The casting of Samantha Morton and Tim Robbins just seems wrong - he falls for her during an interview where her character (Maria) comes across as a total arse, which made me wonder why he would fall for her in the first place. But perhaps more importantly is their physical dissimilarity – Robbins is tall, solid, fleshy; Morton is tiny, doll-like. Maybe the vagaries of film financing meant this was the best coupling money could buy, but for me they just don’t synch at all. Their physical dissimilarity is also fatal to their onscreen chemistry (i.e., where is it?). At best, they seem curiously distant from each other. This is obviously something that any script, no matter how good it is, cannot legislate for. Then again, perhaps this lack of emotional intimacy is a vagary of Winterbottom’s directing style: he seems more at home with the other wordly strangeness of Shanghai’s cityscapes rather than with the complex interplay of living, breathing human beings. 9 Songs is all about two dull people shagging – it’s tempting to see Code 46 simply as a sci-fi version of 9 Songs.
* Winterbottom’s visual style is certainly striking, but there seems to be something strangely improvised about the film. The most interesting and intriguing elements – Robbins’ ability to ‘empathise’ with minor characters and read their thoughts, Morton’s recurring dream regarding a train journey that never reaches its destination – are examples of solid screenwriting that even Winterbottom can’t screw up. However, give the director a couiple of skyscrapers and splash of neon and he’s off on a series of wild visual riffs that no amount of screenwriting can redeem. For example, the car crash in the desert that effectively spells the beginning of the end for our mismatched lovers comes completely out of left field – a potentially good thing in any other’s director’s hands, but as Winterbottom films it from a bird’s eye view, it immediately distances us from the action.
There was a recent Samantha Morton interview in the Guardian that doesn’t even mention Code 46, a fact that is remarkably telling - i.e., it’s not very good. I think this is purely down to the collision of a half decent script with a director hell bent on stamping his supposed visual authority on everything he points his camera at.
I think on this basis, I’ll give A Mighty Heart a miss thanks!