Michael Winterbottom’s foray into science fiction is cryptic, eccentric, and poetic. Set in a near future that resembles our present, it posits a foregone class system in which the possibilities are named, explicitly, the inside and the outside.
The outside, the “afuera,” appears first in Code 46, an emptied desert viewed from above, as a series of epigraphs set the situation: the world’s population lives in a generalized police state, in which movements and interrelations are closely monitored, primarily, it seems, to assuage “incest anxiety,” now designated by a legal statute, “Code 46.” The film will go on to reveal this concern gradually, rather than slamming straight through a rote-dystopian-future plot, like, say, an I, Robot.
As is his practice, Winterbottom is again working with screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Claim) and two exceptional cinematographers — Alwin Kulcher (The Claim) and Marcel Zyskind (24 Hour Party People, In This World). The new film takes up questions concerning relation and mobility, understanding and control, as these are increasingly functions of technology. As the opening titles intimate, Code 46‘s point of departure is fear of incest, brought on by genetic engineering (recalling questions raised by Gattaca ), with extra anxieties ignited by cloning. In this context, the spatial metaphors — inside and outside — are intensified. And the film makes gestures toward its “future,” with references to depleted resources (a damaged ozone layer makes sunlight toxic), cast off and anonymous workers, careless upper classes, 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 recent experience working on In This World, including difficulties keeping traveling papers in order for cast and crew, the new movie considers the legal niceties that complicate daily existence and frustrate individuals. Such difficulties emerge in a voiceover by Maria (wondrous Samantha Morton), as she describes (or remembers, or imagines — it’s hard to tell) the activities of 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 supposes his thoughts, 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. Remarkably, 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 a seller among a crowd of unfortunates seeking the attentions of 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, for Maria likes them. Their relationship will be laced through with such seeming coincidences, leading to the film’s interweaving of destiny, genetics, and, most disturbingly, the distinctions between seeing options and accepting conformity. Maria dreams her own lack of control each year on her birthday, and describes it to the “you” of her voiceover, William: she rides on a subway that takes her one stop further each year, always knowing that this year is the “last stop.”
William appears to represent that stop. Assigned to discover the culprit who’s been passing papelles illegally, he intuits immediately that she is the offender, and reveals later that he achieves his insights 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.
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 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), where she delivers a set of illegal papelles, passing a set on to a friend, Damien (David Fahm). Both Maria and William (whose wife and young son 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 papelle’s time is up, and he must leave — seems odd, given their lack of nonsexual intimacy. But then, Code 46 is no standard film romance; rather, it reflects on nuances of desire and expectation, and how 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.