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The clean, orderly home has a particular hold on the Austrian imagination—specifically the basement, the nation’s subterranean subconscious. This has not been lost on native filmmakers: Rainer Frimmel edited the video confessionals of a Viennese hospital orderly into the captivating Notes From the Basement (2001), while the brilliant Ulrich Seidl is currently at work on something called In the Basement, which “seeks to depict Austrians’ relationships with their basements.” Seidl explained his interest thusly: “It’s a place to do things in secret . . . [of] violence but also a retreat.”
The basement is also the setting for Michael, an Austrian movie that thoroughly skeeved out audiences in its single competition screening at last year’s Cannes. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a thirtysomething unmarried insurance agent who, by necessity, meticulously keeps up domestic ritual. Michael, you see, is a homosexual pederast. Behind his suburban home’s mechanical steel shutters and a soundproof basement door, Michael is holding a 10-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger) captive and apparently has been for some time. Michael’s backlog of the boy’s undelivered letters to his parents fills an entire box, and when Michael and his victim are preparing the house for Christmas, Michael snaps, “Why don’t you fetch the decorations for once?” making you wonder how many holidays they’ve shared.
Much of the film takes place in the house where they are both, after a fashion, prisoners—the boy literally; Michael a captive to his perversion. They exist in a tense truce, clammy before-and-after scenes outlining an enforced sex routine. There are abruptly edited moments where the tension comes close to exploding in violence, but these spikes occur amid mostly leveled-off, quotidian material. We view Michael at the office; Michael on a ski trip; Michael trolling for a “brother” for his captive at a mini-car speedway. The boy, spending days in solitary, prepares himself meals in a cup and draws by flashlight. Together, in a parody of a father-and-son outing, they visit a petting zoo.
There is no emotionally instructive music—though the Boney M. version of “Sunny” appears twice in ironic counterpoint to the mood, betraying the self-pleased naughtiness behind Michael‘s dispassionate facade. The style is detached and objective; the boy sheds tears only with his back turned tactfully to the camera.
Continuing the overall pattern of withholding, Fuith, in the title role, mostly wears the fixed expression of someone who has just smelled something awful. In his dealings with fellow adults, he is shy and unresponsive to emotional cues—typical psychopathic behavior, though Markus Schleinzer’s direction gives no indication that he himself is any better attuned to the finer details of social intercourse. When Michael winds up awkwardly attempting to mount the bartendress at a ski resort, Schleinzer keeps the pickup scene to a bare minimum—a maneuver that doesn’t serve the material, but rather Schleinzer’s shortcomings, an elliptical detour around a moment that the director has no idea how to play convincingly.
A first-time filmmaker, Schleinzer has previously worked in casting, most prominently for Michael Haneke, whose cinema (The White Ribbon, Caché) provides the best comparison to Michael—placid surface over a sucking undercurrent. It’s an anti-entertainment style that forswears obvious tools of viewer manipulation without adding much of anything in their place. The poker-face “sustained tone” is often indistinguishable from cruise control. Given the intrinsic queasiness of the subject, Michael is a difficult movie to watch. But aside from whatever special problems come along with casting and financing a movie about a pedophile, was it really difficult to make?
You can’t say that Michael is sensationalistic, for it is cold to the touch. You can’t say that the things shown here do not happen, for even worse things do—say, the incest dungeon discovered in a cellar in rural Amstetten, Austria, in 2008, a probable inspiration here. And you can’t say that such things don’t deserve the spotlight of art, for the artist should always bear in mind Terence’s “Nothing that is human is alien to me.”
But not everything that is human is naturally interesting, and Schleinzer approaches his subject not as an investigator, but as though covering up a crime scene and scrubbing it of anything that might provide insight or empathy or psychological traction. The cleanup is so thorough, you can’t detect what possible motive he might have had for making Michael, other than to play a nasty game with the viewer’s natural concern for a child’s life. This is cheap when it comes with a Hollywood happy ending and no better without.