Details: 96 mins, Austria,
Synopsis: Describes the last five months of 10-year-old Wolfgang and 35-year-old Michael’s involuntary life together.
Captive drama packs an eerie punch.
CANNES: What's more disconcerting than a pedophile who could literally be the man next door?
In this reporter's experience, that would be overhearing the adult man and woman seated to my left during the Cannes world premiere of Markus Schleinzer’s Michael. Nearly an hour into the film – the unnervingly precise portrait of a thirty-something pedophile with an abducted 10-year-old boy locked in his cellar for regular sexual abuse – the child baits his captor with a statistic. Michael retaliates by telling his captive, Wolfgang, that his parents no longer love him and have rented out his old room.
At this point, the woman next to me said to her companion, in French, "You mean he's not the kid's father?" So, despite a wealth of damning detail, she just thought Michael was a strict parent. One who uses sound insulating material on the first door leading to his cellar and has a dead bolt fitted to the door of the windowless room where he keeps his child.
Just your typical strict dad who lowers electric-powered metal blinds that seal every window whenever the boy is permitted to come up from the spotless suburban dungeon for meals or a little captor-and-captive TV watching before an implied bout of inter-generational sodomy.
This failure to grasp what was being subtly spelled out but spelled out all the same would be kind of like watching Johnny Depp cavort as Jack Sparrow in the 4th installment of a film called Pirates of the Caribbean only to muse aloud, "Oh, I hadn't realised he was a pirate!"
The woman's male companion then asked, "Why doesn't the kid try to leave?"
Hmmm. Good question. Could it be the fact that he's a powerless prisoner of an obsessively meticulous adult who has thought out every angle?
Michael is a hard-working employee in an insurance firm. He has an ordinary house and car. His mother and sister think he has a girlfriend in another city. He's not wealthy, but he's comfortably middle class. And he is handy enough with tools to have installed a bedroom with plumbing in his basement, where enough air circulates for a child to breathe although the only entrance and exit to the room has the clanky finality of a bank vault door. The comparison is apt, since Michael is housing forbidden treasure.
In Pedro Almodovar's Competition entry The Skin I Live In, Antonio Banderas is a fabulously wealthy plastic surgeon who has a fully equipped research lab and operating theatre in his lavish home. He also has a windowless, climate-controlled chamber in which he keeps an adult captive. His far-fetched motivation is, in a way, easier to understand than why a grown man would conclude that the best way to alleviate his sexual urges is to have an in-house underage same-sex victim to violate.
Does two films (out of 20 Competition contenders) centred on a man holding somebody captive in his house with seemingly no hope of escape constitute a trend?
Sardonically ironic touches in Michael include a TV report about the 1,000 missing persons on record in Germany or the captor's use of a line borrowed from a porn film that betrays his stunted imagination.
Except for the fact that he keeps an abducted boy in his basement for sexual purposes, he's pretty normal. And that, of course, is what's so scary.
Michael gets a promotion at work. A waitress takes a shine to him when Michael goes on a ski trip with some buddies. (Wolfgang is locked in his room the entire time, with a supply of instant noodles to eat.) Michael exchanges holiday gifts with his sister. He goes shopping for food and toilet paper – and, in one chilling sequence, he also goes "shopping" for another boy to keep his sex slave company.
In several prominent U.S cases, after serial killers were caught and exposed, neighbours and colleagues said "There was something creepy about that guy." But, with alarming regularity, in other cases, people who had come into contact with the killer would say, "He seemed like a nice guy, always had a friendly word" or "The neighbourhood kids really liked him – he had a way with children."
Anybody can be a predator. Anybody at all.
The small collection of fine films on this topic includes the underseen 2004 drama The Woodsman. Kevin Bacon gave an extremely memorable performance as a heterosexual pedophile who has recently been released from prison after 12 years and is on probation, struggling with the blood in his veins.
Drained of sensationalism and steeped in routine, Michael packs an eerie, lingering punch. The relationship between this 10-year-old boy and his 35-year-old captor will come to an end, but the circumstances of that separation are haunting.
First-time director Markus Schleinzer worked as a casting director from 1994 to 2010, most notably for fellow countryman Michael Haneke.
Schleinzer elicits superb performances from Michael Fuith as the title pedophile and from young David Rauchenberger as his captive, Wolfgang.
And that couple who sat beside me? They just figured out, after a second viewing of James Cameron's film, that Titanic never made it to New York on its maiden voyage.
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