Cannes 2011: CODE BLUE Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor

The film that cautioned audiences it may hurt their feelings did exactly that, the visceral finale of Urszula Antoniak's Code Blue sending members of the debut audience scurrying for the exits in droves as the final burst of violence and degradation played out on screen. The reaction was clearly expected, at least to a degree, the big question is why some chose to exit early. Were they offended by the film's graphic use of hot-button issues - euthanasia, rape and suicide all factor in - or, equally possible, had they simply reached their limit for what is surely one of the bleakest portrayals of human need ever put on screen?

Bien de Moor is Marian, a woman on the far side of middle age living an entirely solitary life. She has no family. She has no friends. She has nothing but her work on the night shift on the geriatric ward of a hospital, a job that limits her sphere of human interaction to those who will inevitably slip away into death. And, quietly, this is a journey that Marian frequently helps them along, taking matters into her own hands for terminal patients and ushering them into the afterlife, the moments of their deaths seeming to be the only time she ever feels truly alive.

But though Marian has constructed a story of a young daughter and other non-existent obligations to keep well wishers at a distance and preserve her solitary life, at her core she still longs for some sort of connection. And so a strange sort of obsession develops with an equally solitary man living in her building, a man she follows into stores and observes from behind drawn curtains. It is a relationship that will not end well.

In her directors' notes for the film Antoniak has stated openly that it was part of her goal to make her audience uncomfortable and in that she has surely succeeded. Antoniak builds the film on a bold performance from de Moor, shooting her protagonist from a clinical distance while favoring precise, often symmetrical shots that mirror the cold and orderly mind of Marian. But the power of the film, it's ability to unsettle, comes not from the clinical distance but from its grounding in Marian's buried emotions, in the notion that a basic need for contact can drive a person to disturbing depths. What initially appears to be an emotional coldness is eventually exposed as utter desperation for contact of any sort and the contact that comes is a bitter statement on the heartless nature of humanity.

The subject matter and sometimes graphic handling of difficult subjects is enough to guarantee that Code Blue will struggle to find an audience. It is a shocking picture - often appalling so - delivered in a deliberately cold style. There is little in the characters for the audience to hold on to and the overwhelming message about human nature is a blend of the tragic and repulsive. But for all that most people will not like the experience that Code Blue offers there is no denying that it is a remarkably well made film coming from a director with a powerful vision and an utterly fearless lead actress. Whether the film is more to be endured or appreciated will be for every audience to decide on their own.
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