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.

_________________________________________________

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

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6 Comments

  1. debbie ann said,

    I thought the film was clear the boy was alive, he consistently was fine over extended absences, the film didn’t disrespect me. After the boy is found is a different film. The sequel. This was life and death of michael. I loved gasping at the end.

    • writingjordi said,

      I believe that anything unseen is not clear. Yes, the boy seemed to have enough food that he could keep himself alive for an extended period of time. But films can do anything, and if the film had wished to show that the boy had committed suicide I would not have been surprised – this is a boy who chooses the knife over the cock, and would probably be expecting severe punishment for his attempted escape.

      I would not expect to see the boy reunited with his family or even plastered over the news – I agree that that is a different film. But I maintain that a single shot, however brief, of him either in his room or stepping out of it would have been far more emotionally satisfying within the context of the film (ie sandwiched between a prolonged amount of time spent on Michael’s family/the aftermath, and playing Sunny). After so much on-screen time was devoted to Michael’s family the film stopped being about the life and death of Michael.

      None of this is to say that someone cannot enjoy the film or it’s ending, and I find it interesting to hear from those (such as yourself) who did. I just believe that choosing to withhold the pay-off shows a lack of courtesy to a film’s audience, and I feel it is disappointing that Schleinzer resorts to shock entertainment at the end of a film that has, until that point, been quite careful in avoiding it.

      • Bradley said,

        Showing what happened to the boy would have been more emotionally satisfying (if cliched), but I think it was deliberately left vague because, as with the rest of the movie, it forces the audience to project what THEY believe is happening to Wolfgang. We are never shown Wolfgang being abused, we are forced to confront that part of the story in our own imagination, so it fits that the same thing happens at the end.

        Personally I would have found an explicitly shown ending far more disrespectful. We as film viewers can and should be expected to interpret films ourselves and place our own meaning into them, without having everything explicitly spelled out for us.

  2. Jordi said,

    Bradley – thank you for your comment. I hadn’t actually considered the “visual withholding” of the ending as being in line with the cinematic way the abuse was handled. I really like this idea but there’s still two things that bother me – the amount of time devoted to Michael’s family in the ending, and the end credits song. These frame the ending and, I believe, it is this context which makes it disrespectful.

    If MICHAEL really wanted to be deliberately vague, why not end the film right after the car crash or the funeral? To spend so much time deliberately building up to the “reveal” of the boy and then not having that reveal (& then having that darn end credits song) feels to me like the film is deliberately trying to be shocking – which would be fine if that was the tone of the film overall. Instead it twists a well-crafted, emotional character study into what feels like one big joke on the audience. And that I find disrespectful.

    • Bradley said,

      Yeah I get what you’re saying, there was a LOT of time dedicated to family members we’ve never seen before doing… well, not much.

      But without knowing the filmmakers’ actual intentions I would suggest that perhaps the prolonged clean-up sequence was supposed to heighten the tension when the mother finally opens to dungeon door. It’s the same reason we see the mother walk through the basement once without noticing the locked door… we (the audience) know what’s there, we want her to find it, but we’re forced to wait minutes for her to finally notice it. And then right when we’re about to see what we all want to see, the movie ends and we’re forced to make up our own minds about what happens next.

      The more I think about it the more I actually really respect the choices the director made and the way he decided to present this situation.

      But as for the reprise of “Sunny” over the credits… I have no idea haha.

      • writingjordi said,

        I agree about its intentions, I just strongly disagree about having it in the film šŸ™‚ To me it is not consistent with the mood that has been created in the first 3/4 of the film.
        It is actually nice to hear how and why it did work for others, though, so thank you.

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