Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A very odd couple: "Michael"

Austrian Psycho might serve as an alternate title for the post-Fritzl paedo-fable (can one say entertainment?) Michael, which turns out to be a film very nearly as warped as its subject, veering between the funny-ha ha and the funny-peculiar with audience-scattering regularity. Central to Markus Schleinzer's feature debut is the relationship between a man and a boy, though we're some way removed from the established Nick Hornby/Tony Parsons template, for the man - the eponymous Michael, a nondescript insurance clerk in his late 30s - is a pederast, and the boy just happens to be his latest victim, locked up in the man's basement.

Schleinzer is less interested in any abuse or transgression than in the normality of the pair's daily and weekly routines: the endless opening and locking of doors, the meals the man prepares for his charge, the cutting of the boy's hair, the banal days out Michael organises as a reward for the kid's continued compliance. There's something strikingly precise, even pedantic, about this organisation of human resources. The boy is cleared seen as another element to be filed away, as his keeper does with the letters the boy writes home in vain hope of getting a response; the man records his abuses in a diary with its own double-entry system. Michael may be the first work to seriously propose paedophilia as an office job, one with its own specific set of interpersonal politics, and the suggestion Schleinzer's film appears to make is that the dehumanised corporate environment, with its hazy notions of power and control, has somehow supported this man's deviancy, one way or another.

That makes the film sounds far bleaker than it actually is to sit through; in fact, there's a strain of droll, situation-specific black comedy running through it that sets one to thinking of The Office, or even The Odd Couple. The film's real source of fascination and anxiety, it turns out, is what happens when the pair's routine is disrupted. When the boy falls sick, the man's response isn't to call in a doctor (and thus bring suspicion to his door), but to head out to the woods to dig a grave. (Fortunately for the lad, it remains empty.) More challenging times ensue when the pederast is hit by a car and breaks his leg, giving the boy ideas of how he might finally come to elude his captor.

Schleinzer has previously worked as a casting director for Michael Haneke, yet his film isn't quite the endurance test one might imagine on hearing that biographical fact: altogether clipped in its editing style, it instead has the structure and rhythms of a live-action cartoon, tossing obstacles in its characters' way and then stepping back, wondering how they might traverse them. These characters are less the stuff of those horrendous real-life news items than of Chuck Jones and Fritz Freleng drawings: they're Bugs Bunny and the hunter Elmer Fudd, or Road Runner and the hapless Wile E. Coyote, or Tweety-Pie and Sylvester, locked in eternal domestic conflict.

The question I asked myself is whether this kind of comedic approach contributes anything significant to our understanding of (or responses to) paedophilia, as the Brass Eye special did; and the answer, I think, is not really, unless you find poking fun at paedophiles for liking Boney M (the naff 70s dance act to whom Michael listens in his car, much as Patrick Bateman extolled the virtues of Huey Lewis and the News in American Psycho) a valuable or necessary public service. What Schleinzer appears to be testing isn't our endurance (as per Haneke) but our sense of humour, another limit entirely. Michael found mine around halfway through its 94 minutes: even as someone broadly sympathetic to the means and aims of extreme cinema, I wish Schleinzer had had the sense and sensitivity to cut around the scene where the actor playing the pederast exposes himself to the child playing the boy; even with the scene's deflating punchline, this surely forms a kind of abuse in itself. (If the actor had done this in front of school gates, would anyone be laughing?)

As it is, I admired the performances, from Michael Fuith (as the man), who'll probably never work again (and may, at the very least, wish Schleinzer had chosen another name for his character), and by David Rauchenberger (as the boy), who probably will, once he emerges from therapy in twenty years' time. I also admired Schleinzer's cheek in getting Michael made and shown, and in getting it past our censors apparently uncut. The joke it most reminded me of is the one about the paedophile leading his latest victim through the woods as darkness falls. "I'm scared," says the boy, to which the pederast replies, "You're scared? I've got to walk back this way on my own." By the rules of comedy, it's a great gag - economical and provocative, while touching on universal human fears - yet the rules of social engagement dictate that, like Michael, you might want to be extra careful whom you share it with.

Michael opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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