Pick­ing at the pieces

This stark, foren­sic por­trayal of a pae­dophile and his vic­tim is a se­ri­ous film that de­mands at­ten­tion, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

WHEN AP­PROACH­ING an Aus­trian film, the in­formed viewer knows not to ex­pect too many danc­ing pen­guins or clowns in ex­plod­ing cars. In re­cent decades, di­rec­tors such as Ul­rich Seidl, Götz Spiel­mann and the great Michael Haneke have de­liv­ered some of the grimmest films ever to darken the art­house.

That said, vet­er­ans of Aus­tria’s cinema may still be taken aback by the quiet mis­ery of Markus Sch­leinzer’s di­rec­to­rial de­but. Long es­tab­lished as the coun­try’s most pres­ti­gious cast­ing di­rec­tor, Sch­leinzer has bravely elected to tackle cer­tain no­to­ri­ous in­ci­dents in re­cent Aus­trian his­tory.

Michael con­cerns a with­drawn, eva­sive pae­dophile who has im­pris­oned a young boy in his ster­ile base­ment. You don’t (or shouldn’t) tackle this sort of

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ma­te­rial with­out think­ing long and hard. The fin­ished project, though pre­dictably dis­turb­ing, turns out to be a model of re­spon­si­ble film­mak­ing. Shot in cold light us­ing a mo­bile cam­era, Michael never strays into gra­tu­itous ex­plic­it­ness or in­ap­pro­pri­ate sen­sa­tion­al­ism. It comes across as a sober re­flec­tion on a topic that we gen­er­ally try to avoid con­sid­er­ing too deeply.

The story is sim­ple. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a drone in a blank, for­bid­ding of­fice. Ev­ery day he re­turns from work, closes the me­tal shut­ters on his win­dows, passes into his dun­geon and es­corts young Wolf­gang up­stairs for an evening of hor­rid food and tense con­ver­sa­tion. In one chill­ing mo­ment, af­ter spend­ing time in the base­ment, we see him mak­ing a check mark in a ledger. What has oc­curred is all too clear.

The re­la­tion­ship is a per­verse vari­a­tion on what goes on be­tween fa­ther and son. Michael dis­ci­plines the boy, tends to his es­sen­tial needs and en­cour­ages him to do his chores. But noth­ing like af­fec­tion ever passes be­tween them.

As the picture pro­gresses, the pro­tag­o­nist runs into a se­ries of com­pli­ca­tions. The boy falls ill. Michael gets hit by a car and has to spend sev­eral days in hospi­tal. He has a sor­did fling with a work col­league who makes the mis­take of vis­it­ing him at home.

Though the film could never be mis­taken for a genre piece, Sch­leinzer very craftily, very qui­etly wracks up the ten­sion dur­ing these in­ci­dents. The fate of the boy is al­ways lurk­ing at the back of the view­ers’ minds.

Michael has, per­haps in­evitably, al­ready at­tracted crit­i­cism. Some have re­marked that the film fo­cuses all its at­ten­tion on the per­pe­tra­tor and re­fuses to dig into the vic­tim’s char­ac­ter. It is, how­ever, too easy to play to an au­di­ence’s bet­ter in­stincts and con­struct such a film around a vul­ner­a­ble hero. Most of us can’t hope to un­der­stand that de­gree of suf­fer­ing and it would be glib to pre­tend that we can. A cool pro­ce­dural ap­proach is surely the more ap­pro­pri­ate way to pro­ceed.

There have also been sug­ges­tions that the film takes a non-judg­men­tal ap­proach to its ti­tle char­ac­ter. This is an empty ar­gu­ment. No rea­son­able per­son will view the film with­out com­ing to his or her own in­evitable con­clu­sions about the wretched­ness of Michael’s ac­tions. We don’t re­quire an au­tho­rial voice to tell us that the man has stepped far be­yond the bounds of de­cent be­hav­iour.

Still, one might rea­son­ably ask why view­ers would wish to sub­ject them­selves to such a gru­elling ex­pe­ri­ence. On a su­per­fi­cial level, the film works as a thought­ful, ex­is­ten­tial melo­drama. The final scenes, in par­tic­u­lar, have an ap­pallingly dis­turb­ing mo­men­tum.

But Michael does have un­de­ni­able moral pur­pose. It forces us to pon­der the way so­ci­ety chooses – an­other easy op­tion – to com­fort­ingly re­clas­sify such per­pe­tra­tors as mon­sters. Hu­mans do ex­traor­di­nar­ily bad things. In most ways, how­ever, even the most ap­palling vil­lain re­mains de­press­ingly or­di­nary. WHAT A strange ca­reer Marc Evans has had. Af­ter emerg­ing with vi­o­lent films such as Res­ur­rec­tion Man and My Lit­tle Eye, the Welsh­man moved on to a drama con­cern­ing autism (Snow Cake) and a doc­u­men­tary about mis­car­riages of jus­tice (In Prison My Whole Life). Now, he has knocked to­gether a charm­ing film set in the long hot sum­mer of 1976.

Even his best friends would strug­gle to deny that Hunky Dory feels a tad fa­mil­iar: a hit US tele­vi­sion se­ries has dealt with school stu­dents find­ing re­demp­tion through pop­u­lar song, and the set­ting casts up mem­o­ries of Ricky Ger­vais and Stephen Mer­chant’s un­sat­is­fac­tory Ceme­tery Junc­tion. But the film is so win­ningly played and so drenched in heat-haze nostal­gia that it’s hard to re­sist.

Min­nie Driver plays a lib­er­ated teacher – all flow­ing fab­ric and fly­away hair – at­tempt­ing to stage a rock ver­sion of The Tem­pest in a work­ing-class Welsh school. It hardly needs to be said that stuffy col­leagues re­gard her ef­forts as im­pos­si­bly dan­ger­ous. Sure enough, the lead ac­tor soon be­comes at­tracted to his di­rec­tor and the girl play­ing Mi­randa gets in­volved in a se­ries of in­ter­lock­ing ro­man­tic tri­an­gles. A gang of racist skin­heads (in­cor­po­rat­ing, rather too in­evitably, the play’s Cal­iban) cir­cles men­ac­ingly in the scorched un­der­growth.

We twig we’re not watch­ing the era’s most sub­tle film when, in the open­ing scene, the most sen­si­tive boy in school an­nounces that his favourite mu­si­cian is David Bowie. (Now, what se­cret can he be hid­ing?) And some of the di­a­logue – “He’s lost the plot, big time” – feels more than a lit­tle anachro­nis­tic.

These quib­bles do not, how­ever, di­min­ish the de­light­ful am­bi­ence es­tab­lished by Char­lotte Bruus Chris­tensen’s cam­er­a­work and Joby Tal­bot’s win­ning mu­si­cal ar­range­ments. The film-mak­ers may, per­haps, have been lis­ten­ing to the record­ings of con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous chil­dren col­lected on The Lan­g­ley Schools Mu­sic Project LP. The ver­sions of tunes such as Life on Mars and Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoul­der) man­age that same com­bi­na­tion of fragility and un­cer­tainty.

It’s all very lovely and very sad. Cyn­ics need not ap­ply. Ag­ing soft­ies will al­most cer­tainly yield to Evans’s warm sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Un­funny games: the Aus­trian film Michael

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