Screens at CIFF: 10/8 & 10/9
World premiere: 14 May, 2011, Cannes Film Festival
I didn't name-drop Haneke by accident: it would be asking to much to think that Schleinzer named the film after the great Austrian shock artist, but what is quite self-evident is that Haneke was much in his mind when he conceived and made the film, unless it's the case that Austrian filmmakers are as a class just completely fucked. Either way, the easiest way to describe Michael (not therefore the best way, mind you, but I was sufficiently cool on the movie that I'm not going to bust my ass on its behalf) is that it's Haneke without the soul, and if you've seen enough of that man's pictures, you can maybe perceive how unsettling the idea of a soulless Haneke sounds.
Michael is a film about a pedophile (Michael Fuith), with a 10-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger) locked in his basement. One of them is named Michael, but the film takes such a damn long time to specify which one it is that I imagine we're meant to kept in some degree of confusion, and I'll play along. Now, over the course of several film weeks, we watch the pedophile go through the motions of living: working, cleaning house, eating meals with the boy, locking the boy in a dark room, and so forth. There is no plot.
Here is what is beyond question: the film is an extraordinarily well-made version of what it is. Schleinzer directs with surgical precision, creating some of the most soul-breaking moments I have seen in recent cinema: early on, we see a shot of the pedophile opening the locked room and closing the door behind him, and after a second's hesitation, the film cuts to a shot of him washing his penis in the upstairs sink. There is perhaps not a more brutally efficient, non-exploitative way of establishing "this man is systematically raping the boy he has locked in his basement" than this fearless, harrowing edit.
Moreover, Fuith's performance is gut-wrenching; one would of course assume that a casting director would be particularly good with actors, and lo! it is thus. Yes, it's a stereotypical depiction of the pedophile as a clammy, anti-social man who can barely hack up banal small talk at work (films that insist on this dead-eyed, sullen, horrendously awkward depiction of sexual predators always break my suspension of disbelief: I can't fathom how this man could possibly avoid being in prison for something, even if it's just a tendency to make everything around him incredibly dreadful), but Fuith takes that stereotype and runs it into the end zone, and if by the film's five minute mark your skeleton isn't crawling out of your flesh, you're made of sterner stuff than I. It's not, however, a moralistic, "behold the evil" depiction: Schleinzer and Fuith take great pains to observe the pedophile in his daily chores, taking care of the boy as one might a particularly bright pet, with a certain detachment but no real animosity. And that, in its way, is far more terrifying than the depiction of the pedophile as a rapacious monster.
Indeed, everything about Michael is fantastically icky, in the most aggressively restrained style. From Haneke, Schleinzer has learned that the audience wants release and he has learned as well how to deprive us of that release: there is only one overtly sexual moment in the film, and no significant confrontations until the last third, and a lot of the story's content takes place in the gap between scenes, not in anything we see. It's not just the material with the imprisoned child: the scenes at the pedophile's workplace are just as hard to handle, particularly his interactions with a nice co-worker (Gisella Salcher), who keeps trying to pull him out of his weird shell.
I have so far described a masterpiece, and here's where the shoe drops: I cannot for the life of me figure out why this movie exists. Even Haneke's games at creating a massive sense of pain and unease in the audience are uniformly more effective than this one, and I for one have turned on all but a handful of his films in the last couple of years. Michael makes the viewer feel bad inside. Really, really bad inside. And then, through a few snazzy ironies at the end, he makes us feel even worse. And he does this so that... something, but I don't know what it is. For Chrissake, I was able to mount a defense of I Spit on Your Grave, I damn well ought to be able to see what apparently every other critic is able to spot in Michael, but the closer I look, the more I can only find a director who has nothing insightful to say about his subject matter, and no real desire other than to express his immense disdain for people who go to watch movies. Right back atcha, kiddo.