The only reason I saw this was off the strength that the person responsible for it (first time director Michael Schleinzer) was the casting director for two of the greatest films made in the last decade (Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ & ‘The Piano Teacher’). Not that that should be any definite indication that he’d be a great director, but if he had anything to do with the casting of those two films that means he should have SOME kinda talent. But unfortunately Schleinzer’s directorial debut is almost pointless and not even his association with one of my favorite directors (Haneke) could help him. If you’re familiar with the type of film that ‘Michael’ is and the category/genre it falls under (a humanistic portrayal of child molesters/pedophiles, it may leave you going; “ok, sooooo…?” (similar to my reaction after watching ‘Kill List’). I had more than one opportunity to see ‘Michael’ before it was released in theaters but the subject matter completely turned me off. Much like post-2003 films about high school shootings, I get a little indifferent towards films about pedophilia these days (I know that sounds odd coming from Todd Solondz’ #1 fan but hear me out…). After Dylan Baker’s performance in ‘Happiness’ and Brian Cox’s performance in ‘L.I.E.’ (two criminally underrated and snubbed roles), where else is there to go? What’s left too explore in the genre of realistic and/or humanistic portrayals of pedophiles?
Between the late 90’s &the first half of the last decade, indie film had this sudden fascination with showing not only the reality of child molestation and pedophilia, but actually showing things from the pedophiles point of view, almost bordering on sympathy which is pretty dangerous and fucked up. Films like Francois Ozon’s ‘Criminal Lovers’ (1999), Solondz’ ‘Happiness’ (1998) & ‘Palindromes’ (2004), Michael Cuesta’s ‘L.I.E.’ (2001) and Greg Araki’s ‘Mysterious Skin’ (2004) are all examples of this. These films helped show people the real horrors of child molestation (and some films like ‘Mysterious Skin’ & ‘L.I.E.’ even went so far as to symbolize how important it is for fathers to be present in the lives of their sons). When you show the stereotypical creepy old man with one tooth or the heavily breathing sweaty monstrous man, sometimes it makes pedophilia and child molestation more like a fantasy and less realistic which shouldn’t be the case. Hell, the Coen Brothers made us laugh subconsciously at pedophiles with characters like “Jesus” in ‘Big Lebowski’ (I wonder if people realize that when they wear one of those novelty Big Lebowski shirts with his image on it, they’re wearing a picture of a fictitious child molester). The films I listed above were ahead of their time in that they showed us that everyone from the handsome baseball coach (‘Mysterious Skin’) to the neighborhood “uncle” that everyone loves (‘L.I.E.’) could have a dark side that no one could possibly know about.
But its 2012 and we (the audience) get it by now; pedophiles are monsters no matter how sympathetic or humanistic you try to portray them on film. Most people already know that a pedophile or sex offender could very well be the last person you expect (which is PART of what ‘Michael’ tries to convey). Why would someone wanna sit through 90 minutes of something that’s super obvious? ‘Michael’ didn’t really bring anything new to the table (outside of showing things from the abused child’s perspective). Films like ‘Mysterious Skin’ & ‘L.I.E.’ already did what ‘Michael’ tried to do (show a complex father & son, big brother/little brother, tormented Stockholm syndrome relationship between the child molester and his victim). In my opinion, when you’re making a film about child molestation you kinda have to try and be somewhat original because if not, you’re just making a slight variation of a movie that’s already been done a million times before and it’ll seem like your only purpose was to shock the audience (although that’s not the case with this film).
‘Michael’ shows us the day to day life off “ordinary”, middle class, “everyman”: “Michael”. He goes to work every day where he keeps his head down and socializing to a minimum, has a family that cares for him (a mother, a sister and a brother), pays his bills and does everything else you and I do. The only difference between Michael and the average everyman is that hes keeping a little boy (“Wolfgang”) locked up in a secret shed beneath his house. That’s right, hes a pedophile (and no one suspects him). His methods are precise and he’s very careful not to get caught. But Michael’s world slowly starts to crumble and he becomes more and more careless as the film progresses. Only in the final minutes of the film is there any type of a resolution…kinda. I say “kinda” because like I said earlier (as well as in the title of the blog), I felt nothing after watching it (outside of the obvious sympathy for the young kidnapped boy). I wasn’t angry, sad, confused, disoriented or anything. All I could do was give a shoulder shrug and head home. If the point of ‘Michael’ was to show the horrific things that go on beneath the seemingly normal surface, then I’d rather watch ‘Happiness’. If you’re trying to make a film that questions the idea of what a “Monster” truly is, I’d recommend focusing on something other than a Pedophile because it’s a little played out.
However, there were SOME good qualities about the film that shouldn’t go unmentioned. Working with Michael Haneke (who got a lot of influence from the later films of Robert Bresson) clearly had an effect on Markus Schleinzer’s directorial debut. The somewhat slow pacing, the extended focus on banalities like preparing the table for dinner & washing the dishes afterwards as well as the minimal soundtrack totally reminded me of early Michael Haneke (“The Austrian Years”). I enjoyed the atmosphere of this film very much and I hope Schleinzer keeps it up for his next couple of films. Like the ending of Haneke’s ‘71 fragments’ or the messages behind ‘The 7th Continent’ and ‘Funny Games’, its clear Markus Shcleinzer was trying to make an honest attempt at being thought provoking. Its also clear that not only did he spend lots of time watching early Haneke films, but other dark noir’s like ‘Vanishing’. Both ‘Vanishing’ and ‘Michael’ are about regular family men who are methodically plotting some diabolic criminal activity without anyone being suspicious of them (however the fate of our main character in ‘Michael’ is completely different than the fate of our villain in ‘Vanishing’). Another thing you need to give Markus Schleinzer credit for is that with this kinda subject matter he had a golden opportunity to try and shock the audience (which woulda made it more problematic than it already is). This is such an easy route that quite a few first time directors have gotten caught up in over the years from the racist butcher punching his pregnant wife in the stomach in Gaspar Noe’s ‘I Stand Alone’ to the blood splattering and ear chopping in Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Outside of two kinda fucked up scenes that clearly indicate a rape has or will take place, there’s no graphic or disturbing imagery. The intentions of the film were good, but I think there needed to be a little more thought put in to the story. Or maybe Schleinzer coulda used his obvious talents (which will serve him well in the future) on a whole different project all together. Whats strange is that I actually have the urge to watch this again. As far as plot or message go, I wanna give ‘Michael’ a C-/D+. But as far as film making, style and atmosphere go, I wanna give it a A-/B+. I guess no matter how many problems the film has, it still succeeded in some way. It got me to take the time out to write about it on my blog over other/better films that I plan on writing about in the future (‘The Reflecting Skin’, ‘Yi Yi’ & ‘CQ’ to name a few). It managed to draw a positive comparison to some works (‘The 7th Continent’, ‘71 Fragments’ and ‘Vanishing’) so it did something right. But overall I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone outside of a few people who’s tastes i really know.