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Cannes Film Festival: A new year, a new provocation from 'Michael,' the Pedophile Movie

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Cannes wouldn’t be Cannes without movies built to shock. Usually there’s (yawn) sex involved — bonjour, Brown Bunny!  Antichrist-like degradation is also nice and will suffice. This year, for his first feature, Austrian casting director-turned filmmaker Markus Schleinzer methodically, balefully  observes a 35-year-old pedophile (Michael Fuith) who gives the movie its title, and Michael’s  victim, 10-year-old Wolfgang (David Rauschenberger), imprisoned in Michael’s basement. This is no Silence of the Lambs voluptuous horror show; it’s a matter-of-fact, daily-life horror show of “normality.” Michael goes to his regular job at an insurance company, interacts with colleagues, comes home to a tidy house, cooks a nutritious meal, unlocks a basement door, summons Wolfgang upstairs for dinner, washes dishes with the boy, maybe watches television or works on a jigsaw puzzle with him, then orders the kid downstairs again for rape before bedtime.

Schleinzer, who cast and coached the children in fellow Austrian Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (and also worked on Haneke’s Time of the Wolf and The Piano Player) has learned well at the feet of his cold-blooded mentor. His own aesthetic stare is similarly neutral, expressionless, avid.

I previously dismissed Michael in the course of writing about Footnote, the Cannes competition entry I still think has the most to say and says it most inventively. But in the hallways around the Palais, I’ve been hearing, as one does in this privileged 12-day, Provençal scrum, of colleagues who think Michael is just great, praising the quality of the filmmaking and the authenticity of the performances.

And I don’t disagree about the technical quality.  Schleinzer has a fine sense of composition, pacing, and scene-building. He establishes a subtle and intricate rhythm to the game of leading the audiences to a shocking conclusion. He elicits performances of disturbing clarity. (How he gets that emotional immediacy from a child actor is its own unsettling question.)

But admiring the movie’s technical achievements doesn’t salve my deep queasiness about Michael: With Schleinzer’s evident skills as a filmmaker, why would he want to devote his attention to this? What purpose does this movie serve? (Why did Festival programmers choose to include this self-absorbed exercise among the precious competition films aside from, you know, shock value?) In the press notes, Schleinzer explains that he is interested in looking, without judgment, at someone who could be anybody we know, and to challenge our own notions and prejudices about who such a person might be. But by the very nature of fiction and the structure of this movie, we can never know why Michael is what he is. We learn nothing about him except the fictional, sickening details his creator shows us. We gain no insight into the man, or into ourselves and our prejudices. Schleinzer may have an outsized interest in the life of a pedophile, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything about what such a person feels, or does. And since he doesn’t, the fastidiousness with which he goes about imagining what if is its own kind of sadism.

Mission accomplished. This tongue is wagging.

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