Tuesday, 20 March 2012

'Michael' review:

Stark, austere and stripped of sentiment or the vaguest promise of redemption, Markus Schleinzer's directorial debut 'Michael' is a grim tale told (for the most part) from the perspective of Michael Fuith's titular pedophile: a middle-aged Austrian insurance salesman. Michael's otherwise banal existence is only of note because he has abducted a young boy, who he keeps in a specially designed room below his unremarkable suburban home.

It's a synopsis that's not only uncomfortably similar to several cases in recent Austrian history, but which also seems currently in vogue with European filmmakers - with the in some ways identical French film 'Coming Home' debuting at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Yet whereas that less compelling effort made a vain attempt to analyse both kidnapper and victim, 'Michael' focuses on the former and boldly presents this character in a way which is endlessly humane without compromising the horror of his distressing crimes.

Michael is a loner and, whilst nothing in Schleinzer's subtle film waves his backstory in your face, you can just about glimpse his unhappy childhood and unfulfilled adulthood among the details. He is antisocial, though a palpable self-hatred sees him repeatedly attempt to overcome inadequacy (going on a ski holiday with friends and throwing an office party). He seems unable to relate to adults and much more comfortable in the company of young boys - who I suppose represent the only subset of the population he feels able to hold any semblance of control over or has anything remotely in common with (with his fondness for Christmas and racing cars).

He is not a monster, yet nor is he a victim, with the film resisting any easy classification of his behaviour or character. It is testament to the great skill of Fruith's restrained performance (pathetic but tinged with just enough threat) that the film can remain so mannered and almost neutral even when it comes to depicting the protagonist's molestation of a child.

Though we're never explicitly shown any of the acts themselves, it is strongly implied that Michael is having sex with the 10 year-old Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), the miserable and angry blonde-haired child imprisoned beneath his home. Whereas 'Coming Home' sought to make its kidnapper marginally less hateful by having him express a lack of sexual interest in his young prey - eventually forming a consensual sexual relationship with his victim (a teenage girl) - 'Michael' does not cop out so spectacularly.

If you're going to address the perverse and uncomfortable side of humanity, and suggest that this chaotic and debauched assault on social values can lurk just behind the curtain of any seemingly normal family home (as is the case), then in order to do that effectively you must be frank about what that sinister face of humanity looks like. It makes for mercilessly uncomfortable viewing, but 'Michael' is not trying to make its protagonist or his actions palatable, even as it avoids the classic knee-jerk response of the lynch mob.

'Michael' is out now in the UK, rated '18' by the BBFC.

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