Michael: Cannes Review

Cannes Film Festival
This film boldly tries to humanize absolute evil yet shies away from its subject at every opportunity.

"Michael" bravely tackles a subject most filmmakers would shun, then fails to make any sense of the repugnant behavior it portrays.

CANNES -- Michael from first-time Austrian director Markus Schleinzer is a seriously misguided film. It bravely tackles a subject most filmmakers would shun, then loses courage and fails to make any sense, either psychological or morally, of repugnant behavior. Drawing a mixture of applause and boos at its Competition screening in Cannes, Michael will probably remain a festival curio inspiring more debate than it ever will ticket sales.

Pedophilia and sexual predators are much in the news but the subject is rarely dramatized anywhere since the general public thinks of these perpetrators as a lower life form than contract killers. Schleinzer, who wrote and directed this film after many years working as a casting director, wants to get at the problem by putting a human face to the crime. He knows full well this will occasion the jerk-knee reaction by many that he is humanizing a “monster.” Yet this is not the real problem with his movie.

He bestows on his kidnapper/child predator Michael (morosely played by Michael Fuith) such human traits as smoking outside his house but not in, being remote but collegial at work, fastidiousness over having a clean house and so on. But then timidity overcomes the film.

It never wants to look too closely at the evil Michael perpetrates or imagine what compels him to so desert moral principles. In other words, this human portrait lacks any inner life or uncontrollable impulses. Is he in anguish over his crimes or perfectly happy about them? You never know.

Michael is tightly wound and gloomy with a streak of cruelty and anti-social behavior lurking right beneath the surface. Schleinzer refuses to make him even close to likable in his “normal” life outside the home where he has imprisoned a young boy. You clearly distinguish a warped personality even if his colleagues and family don’t.

It’s not as if movies have never explored such a topic. Michael Cuesta’s 2001 L.I.E. was bold enough to make a child predator sympathetic although admittedly in that case and with Nabokov ‘s famous novel, Lolita, these were much older youngsters. Schleinzer does up the ante of disgust by making Michael’s captive a 10-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger). But having challenged himself thusly, he comes up empty.

If anything this is a portrait of a monster as a quiet and perverse young man. Nothing sparks a viewer’s interest in this 35-year-old man other than the enormity of his crime.

The treatment of the child is another problem. He’s a victim every moment. Nothing here makes you understand how an adult can cajole a child into trust or make the abnormal feel normal. News reports of such crimes often mention that children believe in what their captors tell them and even come to have positive feelings toward them. Schleinzer will have none of that: He presents his young character as angry, sullen or sorrowful at every turn.

Then too, you worry about the child actor. Isn’t exposing him to such a character even in play-acting for a movie a kind of exploitation? Hard to say but it’s an uncomfortable thought.

Schleinzer has a deserved fate awaiting his horrible protagonist as if to make up for even daring to display such a tormented soul on screen. This in a final indication that he is back-peddling from his own subject, denying Michael’s real humanity — which has nothing to do with smoking outside or buying a Christmas gift for his captive — and making certain to visit on him a terrible, painful revenge.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Cast: Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger, Christine Kain, Ursula Strauss, Viktor Tremmel, Gisela Salcher
Director/screenwriter: Markus Schleinzer
Producers: Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer
Director of photography: Gerald Kerkletz
Production designers: Katrin Huber, Gerhard Dohr
Costume designer: Hanya Barakat
Editor: Wolfgang Widerhofer
No rating, 96 minutes