Austrian director defends Kampusch-themed Cannes entry

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An Austrian first-time director defended his chilling Cannes entry about the relationship between a pedophile and his prey which shocked audiences and sharply divided critics.

The plot of "Michael," one of 20 contenders for the festival’s top prize, has strong parallels to the story of Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl kept locked in a cellar for more than eight years by a child molester.

Filmmaker Markus Schleinzer presents drab officer worker Michael, who keeps 10-year-old Wolfgang prisoner in a soundproofed cell behind a bolted door in his own basement, not as a monster but as a mild-mannered everyman.

"I wasn’t interested in a witch hunt," said Schleinzer, 40, best known as a casting director on films by his compatriot Michael Haneke including the 2009 Palme d’Or winner "The White Ribbon."

"I wanted someone who seemed pretty average, where one could say, ‘I know someone like that’. You find pedophilia, like all kinds of crime and violence, in every social stratum," he told AFP.

The film’s casts a cold, clinical and riveted gaze on the perpetrator and observes the familiar routine that he and his young prisoner share.

Michael arrives at work each morning, performing well enough in his insurance job to earn a promotion, and even goes off on a ski holiday with friends, leaving Wolfgang in his custom-built prison with some instant soup.

The sexual abuse is mercifully shielded from view but the sight of a leering Michael reclining on Wolfgang’s twin bed and calling the boy to him was enough to make viewers’ blood run cold.

Wolfgang, an intelligent child who does not believe Michael’s claim that his parents have abandoned him to his life in the dungeon, flinches every time his captor touches him.

But they also share relaxed moments together — preparing dinner, doing jigsaw puzzles and decorating the Christmas tree. That down-time reveals a sentimental, even child-like side to Michael.

"Depicting criminals as monsters is in my opinion about protecting yourself and the desire to distance yourself from them," Schleinzer said. "If you make him a monster, what is he? A mythical creature? But he is not human."

Schleinzer said the Kampusch case was only one impetus for the story, noting that thousands of children vanish every year.

"Of course these issues are enormously frightening," he said. "But to suppress them for that reason and not talk about them does not minimize the danger."

The film sparked strong interest at Cannes, with an extra screening hastily arranged to accommodate critics who were shut out of the packed premiere.

Screen magazine called the picture "acutely sensitive to issues of exploitation" in a rave review.

"Michael could be your son, brother, father or colleague," its critic said.

"(And) the restraint of (Rauschenberger’s) performance is in tune with a film which takes the sting out of a white-hot topic and transforms it into a troubling, thought-provoking and quietly disturbing drama."

Dennis Lim of the New York Times also gave the movie a strong endorsement when polled for Sunday’s film trade journals.

But other critics such as Stephane Delorme at Cahiers du Cinema and David Stratton of The Australian gave the picture a "poor" rating, and Entertainment Weekly reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum said it gave her "deep queasiness."

"What purpose does this movie serve? And why did Festival programmers choose to include this self-absorbed exercise among the precious competition films aside from, you know, shock value?" she wrote.

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