The main gimmick in Maniac (Khalfoun, 2012) is that, with the exception of some fantasies, it’s all filmed from the killer's point of view. Your perspective of the film is shaped purely by the antagonist vision of the events. In this respect, it's like the anti-found-footage movie. The tension in found-footage films like Atrocious (Luna, 2010) or [REC] (Balagueró; Plaza, 2007) works because of what you don't know and can't see. You only get as much information as the person, usually the protagonist, holding the camera. By isolating your perspective in this way, these films effectively simulate the feeling of being stalked or terrorized, becoming a virtual reality for people who like being scared. With Maniac, Khalfoun switches perspectives to the villain, and the antagonist’s view in horror films is generally more omniscient. Think of Jason, Freddy, or Michael Myers, who seem to always know where you are and can be behind whatever corner you’re going to turn. Frank (Elijah Wood), the killer in Maniac, is just like them, able to hide in the shadows and see everything you're doing without you knowing it. As an audience member, who surely doesn’t want to play the role of the bad guy, this means you have to fight against the forced perspective and attempt to identify with the victim in the distance, but it’s too difficult - they’re too distant and for the most part you don’t know anything about them other than they’re not going to make it. There is a strange feeling of guilt, having to lurk around with Frank, and stand idly by while he hacks and scalps. It doesn't really make for good tension, but it does make for an interesting, albeit dirty, experience.
The film often displays characteristics of POV Porn, where a character gets to know a girl in a fantastical situation, like picking up a hitchhiker in your bus and she just so happens to be willing to have sex with them. Maniac has this in certain situation, like the dancer on the train station which just so happens to be completely devoid of anyone who can catch them in the act. But in Maniac, sex is rejected for violence, and because of our brain’s inclination to empathically take on the first person perspective as our own, this causes us to experience something we wouldn’t really want to experience. It’s reminiscent of video games, in which you control characters that are expected to kill or destroy in order to progress the story. If you want to see how the movie ends, you have to stick with Frank the whole way. However these games, in which you assume a virtual reality as your own, are generally considered to be enjoyable, while the experience in Maniac is unsettling and uncomfortable. This is most likely because of the very real human beings conveying suffering as opposed to pixelated avatars that no one feels bad for when they bleed out. Unless their name is Aeris.
Additionally there's an aspect of misogyny that can't be avoided, but because it's so intentional it becomes more interesting than your garden variety macho bullshit. Frank desires an idealized version of women, not wanting to take in any particular flaws that would actually make them human beings. Take the girl he meets over the internet for example. She is not virginal or angelic, but a rebel and very forward sexually. This give her power and independence that unsettles Frank, even though she hasn’t exhibited any truly negative behavior. Even though she questions his masculinity when he becomes uncomfortable about the idea of sleeping with her, she also subjugates herself to him by performing oral sex. Her character has a balance of independence and submissiveness, but Frank is upset by her nature and decides to kill her. Since this is the perspective of a villain it's okay, but the film takes it further by adding a cliche backstory involving his mother, who was a bad mom doing drugs and banging dudes in front of her son. The women Frank desires are meant to fill a void left by his mother. They need to be the opposite of her, taking on qualities that he feels best represents a good mother. This backstory attempts to create sympathy for the villain by saying he's a product of nurture and puts blame on the female character for not being a good mother. She created the beast, and he's now wreaking havoc on women everywhere. Thanks mom.
Another cliche is then added: The Shitty Boyfriend. Take The Wedding Singer (Coraci, 1998) as an example. Robbie (Adam Sandler) falls in love with Julia (Drew Barrymore) but Julia is engaged. The good news is that Julia's fiance is a complete dick bag. He's so awful that you can't fathom why someone perfect like Julia, who is funny, smart and cute, would be with a callous, materialistic, douche. The Shitty Boyfriend disposes of any ambiguity regarding the protagonist's quest to obtain his heart's desire, even when she's given herself to another - so we have no other choice than to root for Robbie, or whatever underdog in a similar situation, to succeed. She deserves better! This character somehow finds its way into Maniac. Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is not unlike Julia from The Wedding Singer. She's cute, smart, and appreciative of art. Frank isn't unlike Robbie, socially awkward with anger issues. Jason, Anna's boyfriend is the belligerent alpha male, assuming Frank is gay and marking his territory by wiping his hands on Frank's jacket after using the bathroom. Exposure to countless stories have given us a Pavlovian response to the Shitty Boyfriend, and Maniac uses that, much like The Shitty Mom, to garner more sympathy for someone whose actions should render him completely unsympathetic.
There’s a strange false catharsis at the end of Maniac. Frank seemingly has everything he think he wants, Anna is added as the crown jewel of his collection, but succumbs to the wounds sustained from their earlier confrontation. As he dies he imagines the women he’s killed tearing him apart and eating him alive. This moment, in which we can witness all the victims getting a gruesome revenge on their killer, while visually engaging, doesn’t feel like a denouement meant to purge all those icky feelings we’ve had to deal with the whole film. Maybe we’re supposed to get some solace in knowing that Frank still didn’t get what he wanted, but at what cost? Frank getting ripped apart was merely a fantasy, the victims didn’t really get any revenge - they died horrible and sad deaths. And because we’d developed some kind sympathetic relationship with the character, it comes off more like a release for Frank - who no longer has to suffer and create suffering.
In many films from the “extreme horror” niche, to which this film’s writer/producer Alexandre Aja helped pioneer with Haute Tension(Aja, 2003), there is almost always a lack of catharsis for the audience. It’s a classification of horror films characterized by nihilism, seeing the worst in human nature, while victims are reduced to carved meat.The characters will undoubtedly die in a cruel way, and usually the villains will walk away, leaving little hope to hang on to for the viewer. And what could be scarier than hopelessness? At their worst, these types of films are two dimensional gore fests in which the audience stands by waiting for the villains to just end the pain so we won’t feel bad anymore. The best of these, Martyrs (Laugier, 2008), leaves the audience with questions about the film’s purpose and what the big idea is with watching all this suffering. Maniac isn’t as interesting as Martyrs but it feels closer to that direction, philosophically, than other films of this ilk. We’re left with conflicting feelings about compassion for horrible people, but because of the cliche and simplistic methods used to create these feelings, it doesn’t explore the themes as effectively as it could. However, the ideas are there and interesting enough to discuss, which is probably more important than any quality issues.