If a film does not respect its audience, is it a bad film?

July 27, 2011 at 10:10 am (Writing) (, )

CAUTION: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS – basically, the whole plot of the film, including the ending. (This is not a review, but a rant following the 26 July screening of Michael at the Melbourne International Film Festival.)

Why did Michael make me so angry? In the MIFF program, Michael is described as:

A hard-working employee in an insurance firm, Michael leads an ordinary life, with an average car, a nice house and a nice normal girlfriend who lives abroad. Except she doesn’t exist, and neither does his ordinary life. Instead, Michael has a ten-year-old boy named Wolfgang locked in his basement.

Michael is the chilling and ambitious debut feature from filmmaker Markus Schleinzer. With a story ripped straight from the headlines, the film follows five months in the life of a paedophile and his prisoner, exploring the unsettling normalcy of a man who is secretly a monster.

To me this conjures up the idea of a film that spends a fair amount time showing you a character and their normalcy before delving into the horrible reality of their private life. Michael is not like this. Michael is the quiet story of a paedophile who is constantly negotiating the various demands in his life – specifically those arising from the fact that he keeps a boy locked in his basement. The film holds the viewer at arm’s length using long shots of hands, backs, and profiles as Michael alternates between trying to satisfy his sexual desires, trying to meet the needs of a ten year old boy, and trying to be a normal, functioning member of society.

Michael Fuith – the actor who plays Michael – seems to have been chosen for his ability to keep a dour face. Not only are all other characters surprisingly oblivious to Michael’s oddities (such as a house with security roller shutters on its windows closed at all strange hours*, or that he always wants to spend Christmas alone), but several female characters are, in spite of his obvious social awkwardness, drawn to Michael.

Michael: Buster Bluth's surly twin

Yet these are merely irritations and easy enough to look past as Michael slowly but surely pokes its cold fingers into your chest and begins to squeeze vital organs. The highlight of chilling is reached when Michael tries to lure a second child home, ostensibly as a playmate for the other boy, and for the first time we see his “true form” in a public place. As for the moment of greatest heartache, for me it lies somewhere between the boy, his back to the camera, sobbing on his bed after Michael’s told him his parents don’t care about him any more, and the dead cat that serves to reinforce Michael’s lack of regard for other people’s desire to know the fate of missing loved ones, be they cat or son.

The film builds to a climax with a detour via humour. Michael, having received a promotion at work and thrown an office party to celebrate, drives home with hitherto unseen cheer, singing along to Sunny. The good mood doesn’t last for long as the boy unsuccessfully attempts to escape by throwing boiling water in Michael’s face. Scalded, shaking, and possibly blind Michael gets back in his car and drives… presumably for the hospital, but we’ll never know because he fatally crashes the car.

When this happens the film stops being about the life of a paedophile and the relationship between him and his victim. It should have become a film about the fate of his victim. Instead it becomes lingering shots of grieving relatives and blatant, emphasised irony in the form of funeral speeches.

If the film had ended here I would give it credit for being a character study of a paedophile. But it keeps going! We watch drawn-out scenes of Michael’s mother taking a nap in a child’s bedroom, of the family eating dinner. Eventually the family go to clean out Michael’s house. At last! The boy shall be set free! (Assuming he’s still alive.) The whole audience was desperate for this moment – the pay-off for all the emotion that has been poured into the film. And still we waited… and waited… as Schleinzer teased us with characters walking past the boy’s door without paying it any attention. Then, that golden moment when, as we watch from a distance behind her, Michael’s mother tries the door handle. It doesn’t open – the door has a bar-like locking mechanism across it. She unlocks it. Tries the handle again. It turns and the door sticks a little as she opens it a few inches and – showing the audience nothing – looks inside. A little gasp escapes her – cut to black.

The cinema resounded with the frustrated cries of the audience. I am not very tolerant of such endings and as I sat there trying to reconcile my grief and shock Schleinzer practically reached through the screen to slap the audience in the face for, as the credits rolled what was the soundtrack? Sunny.

I cannot think of anything more disrespectful to the character of the boy, and to the audience who has invested time and emotion. The boy’s fate remains unknown, unseen but HEY, REMEMBER THAT FUNNY SCENE IN THE CAR WHEN THE PAEDOPHILE WAS REALLY HAPPY?

The lack of pay-off filters the whole film’s ending – the character of Michael becomes something of a joke at the boy’s expense, which escalates my response from irritated to furious. I spent the rest of the night pondering and challenging my response, and whether this lack of respect for the audience makes the film itself “bad”. I don’t know the answer, but imagine if the audience had a chance to see the boy and be assured that he was alive, perhaps even see him step from the basement – then a cut to the credits/Sunny would be provocative without being alienating – the boy reclaiming his life but left irrevocably marked by Michael. That, I think, would have been good.

If you would still like to see Michael for yourself it screens again as part of the festival on Monday, 1 August.

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*I haven’t been to Austria so I am assuming this type of security is not normal.

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