Not too long ago I heard someone suggest the idea of screening a season of paedophile films, which is the kind of monstrously amazing idea (bear with me) that probably (unfortunately) can’t actually ever happen. Seriously, there are loads of great, great films that feature some kind of intergenerational sexual sordidness—Taxi Driver, Lolita, Little Children, Happiness, Mysterious Skin, Donnie Darko, M, and more recently Snowtown. You could probably throw in this dodgy-as-fuck number from a decrepit Maurice Chevalier in Gigi for some light relief. I could go on (but I definitely shouldn’t). Anyway, the point is that were such a concept ever to come to fruition, the season’s pièce de résistance would have to be Michael—the meticulous, thrillingly disturbing portrait of a single, forty-ish, middle-class Austrian man who just happens to keep a young boy locked in his basement.
After Yorgos Lanthimos’ brilliantly insane Dogtooth, writer-director Markus Schleinzer’s astoundingly accomplished debut is the second film to invoke deep shades of the infamous Josef Fritzl case (we all remember Fritzl right? He was the charming Austrian septuagenarian who, in 2008, was found to have been keeping his daughter imprisoned as a rape-toy in a custom-built basement apartment beneath his house, and to have fathered seven children with her in the process—one of whom died of cot-death and had been named—yes—Michael). However, where Lanthimos’ Greek new wave sensation traded in ingenious bizarro-comedy, Schleinzer’s film is, for the most part, restrained and even deceptively banal.
An over-attentiveness towards the activities that make up Michael and his young charge’s quotidian routine borders at times on a how-to guide for wannabe child-gaolers (Suggestions: invest in fortress-like security shutters; avoid houseguests; ensure an adequate stock of dried foods for when you go away on a skiing holiday). Masterfully measured editing and scrupulous framing sees these day-to-day sequences tick along with impeccable precision. But this restraint is also what allows the film to explode with crisis when you least expect it, ramping up the tension to fever-pitch when circumstances suddenly go awry. Moreover, it’s what you don’t see, and what doesn’t quite happen on-screen, that makes the day-to-day-ness all the more terrifying: Schleinzer cutting away or changing tack with incredible judiciousness at those precise moments at which Michael threatens to become—without the slightest exaggeration—the most brain-meltingly harrowing film you’ve ever seen.
Where Michael is perhaps equally most shocking and most impressive is in moderately humanising its titular protagonist. It’s no mean feat to generate a degree of empathy for the guy you’ve just shown giving himself a post-sexual-abuse cock-rinse, but Schleinzer manages it. Michael the man is at turns socially inept, vindictive, childish and easily-provoked, tearfully desperate, and even—whisper it—fatherly, albeit in a really, really perverse way. These shows of emotion don’t for a second absolve him, but they do elicit a basic element of human affinity that renders the film’s moments of crisis even more gripping.
Another hugely influential namesake for the film is Michael Haneke, with whom Schleinzer has long worked as a casting director, and from whom he’s evidently learnt several tricks—not least the Palme D’Or-winning auteur’s penchant for exploring the bleaker, malevolent side of humanity. In Schleinzer however, Haneke appears to have found an apprentice with an even blacker heart. Not only is Michael an account of horrific depravity, at its core it feels faintly, wickedly comic. Whether it’s the fantastically jarring incongruity of Boney M’s ‘Sunny’ playing over the closing credits, or the presence of a solitary joke that is singularly the darkest, most profane piece of humour I’ve ever seen on film (and for which distributors Artificial Eye have allegedly labelled this ‘the knife-cock film’), you get the impression that Schleinzer is chuckling quietly behind the projector. For some, given the subject matter, maybe that’s enough to condemn Michael out of hand. For me, it’s what makes it one of the most compelling, stand-out pieces of cinema of recent months. Either way, it’s a film that lingers in the mind long after you’ve seen it, for reasons that are either very wrong, or so wrong they’re fucking great.
Michael is on release from Friday 2 March.