Cannes often courts controversy, and with potentially volatile films centered on a Child Protection Unit, and one on the Pope already screened, this year looks to be no different. Add to this the inclusion of Michael, a film that explores the relationship between a pedophile and his ten-year-old victim. Man alive that’s a change of direction from this morning’s show-case of Pirates of the Caribbean!
That very brief synopsis may sound pretty despicable, and I have to admit I wrestled with why I would want to go and see it, but at the end of the day, I idolize good filmmaking, and who am I to judge how a director chooses to express his skill? The most difficult aspect is that it is impossible to resist comparisons with the harrowing real-life story of Austrian Natasha Kampusch, though thankfully director Markus Schleinzer (famously Michael Haneke’s casting director of choice) has chosen a far more tactful approach than presenting an obscene and intentionally controversial style.
When it boils down to it, Michael is a suburban horror that focuses on the pedophiles attempt to continue having a normal life despite having a ten-year-old imprisoned in his basement in order to suggest the jolting duplicity of his situation. The horror is a cold sweat-inducing experience, a slow-burn as you realize that the same thing could be happening behind any door in any community, with the perpetrators of the crime co-existing normally with their neighbors, friends and co-workers. And the decision to take Michael’s point of view, rather than that of his victim, and not to have him under suspicion at any point during the film reinforces how well his deception works.
With certain films, it is difficult to judge only the subject matter, rather than the filmmaking itself, especially for someone like myself who values films for the personal effect they have, and Michael fits the bill perfectly, thanks to Schleinzer’s decision to resist any kind of overt moral judgement in favor of a clean narrative presenting Michael’s personal story, which in itself is incredibly brave. There are no explicit scenes of abuse, though the atmosphere between Michael and Wolfgang is horribly tense, and the adult’s casual violence and short temper, mixed with his odd and occasionally protective affection for the child do the job just as well. To see Michael and Wolfgang’s perverse relationship unfold on screen, which ranges from paternal to something far more sickening, is a chilling reinforcement of the film’s overall dedication to making the audience’s skin crawl through the idea that any of this could be the norm for anyone. Such is the success of the juxtaposition of normalcy and such a despicable crime was so affecting that I fear I am now forever put off the song “Sunny,” by Marvin Gaye, which accompanies one scene in which we see Michael singing to himself in his car. It was difficult enough to not scream at the screen at this point, and the use of such an iconic, cheery song made it an even more jarring moment. But yeah, I doubt I’ll be listening to it for a while now.
Having said Schleinzer doesn’t take a moral stance, there are some hints that we are supposed to take the conventional stance of hating Michael for his crimes, and the director is careful not to offer anything that might suggest that he has no choice in his deviance. There is one scene in which we see him crying, apparently in grief at what he continues to do, but it is more jarring than empathetic, since the emotional response comes from Michael’s psuedo-paternal instinct to allow his victim some sense of normalcy. But overall, the film is as cold as its main character, presenting the reality of his life in a clinical manner that makes it all the more repellent.
Michael himself is played convincingly by Michael Fuith, who switches from normal mode to deviant seamlessly, and crucially he never attempts to make the perversest anti-hero out of his character, which would have spelled disaster for the film. His younger co-star David Rauchenberger is less successful in places, though he is good when the role requires more pronounced emotion, and he carries the weight of a tremendously difficult role very well overall for one so young.
To say I enjoyed it would be a huge exaggeration. It is possible to admire the filmmaking techniques, and the composition and execution of certain scenes, but the subject matter makes actual enjoyment a problem, and I can’t imagine that any great numbers are going to flock to see this when and if it gets world-wide distributions deals. It is, however a staple Cannes sort of film, provoking the audience to react to the story, but also to ignore the distraction of the difficult subject and recognize the skill involved – for that reason, my grade below reflects how the film was made, and not necessarily (for once) how it made me feel.
The Upside: It is certainly made well, and some scenes, including the car crash scene (without wanting to go into spoiler country) standing out as particularly well shot. And yes, it is a brave film…
The Downside: …But it is too grim to be entertaining, and is so ponderous in places that it feels about an hour longer than it’s near 90 minute run-time.