It may come as no surprise to the viewer when they discover that the director of Michael, Markus Schleinzer was an assistant to Michael Haneke (Funny Games) for many years. This dark and genuinely unsettling debut is clearly cut from the same cloth as his mentor.
Michael is the story of an office drone who, on the surface, appears to be a regular, if slightly dull person. He is nondescript of appearance and seemingly lacks any notable social graces of any sort. He also has a specifically modified basement in which he keeps a 10 year old boy named Wolfgang (whom he has clearly kidnapped, although specifics are never entered into). The Austrian film follows, in an entirely matter of fact way, several months in the lives of the captor and his captive.
It is the nonchalance with which Schleinzer handles such grisly subject material which makes it all the more disturbing. There are moments in which Michael appears to be almost parental towards his unwilling prisoner, but his main motive is sexual, something which is not generally in the desires of most cinemagoers to witness onscreen in any way, shape or form.
Some of us will remember the furore which surrounded Todd Solondz’s Happiness in 1998. Michael doesn’t have the bizarre comic book aesthetic of Solondz’s work and as a result resonates in an entirely different way.
Certain scenes will have most people reaching for their remote controls as this is far from an easy watch. It is certainly nauseating in parts, particularly when Michael is seen washing his penis in the sink after paying a visit to the basement and also when he reenacts a movie he watched on TV in which he presents Wolfgang with a knife and his penis and asks ‘Which one do you want me to stick in you?’. The child, understandably, chooses the knife.
The majority of the unpleasantness is implied, as opposed to graphically portrayed but this only serves to effect the viewer in a more harrowing way. An extremely challenging and desperately upsetting film, this is recommended as an example of how powerful and emotive cinema can be, as opposed to any great storytelling achievement.
The final scenes will have you writhing with frustration and anxiety. You’ll see.