For his first feature as writer and director, longtime casting director Markus Schleinzer has created the Austrian entry "Michael," a strange and troubling little film, a hermetically sealed creep-fest that seems to have no desire to be anything more than just that.
The title character, played by Michael Fuith, is a quiet dweeb who works in an insurance office. He eats his lunches alone and keeps to himself. He also has a 10-year-old boy named Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) imprisoned in his basement, part pet, part plaything, part emotional substitute for everything Michael cannot himself be or feel.
The film largely focuses on the routine of their strange life together; Schleinzer makes plain Michael's sexual abuse of his ill-gotten charge without lingering on the fact. Disturbing is rarely done with this much discretion.
Michael is in essence a child himself, and Schleinzer takes deliberate care to create rhyming images and gestures between the boy and the man. As Wolfgang begins to show small signs of rebellion, becoming more willful and fighting back in subtle ways, Michael shrinks, shirking from confrontation.
Schleinzer previously has worked with filmmaker-provocateur Michael Haneke, and while they share a sense of detachment, Schleinzer lacks Haneke's sense of deep morality, the stiff-backed rectitude that truly gives Haneke's work its full sense of power. Schleinzer's film feels shallow in comparison, with nothing behind its queasy unease.