The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq
Directed by Guillame Nicloux
Opens March 25 at Film Forum
A face like Michel Houellebecq’s deserves depiction. A caricature of the French writer donning a wizard’s hat was on the cover of Charlie Hebdo this January, on the day gunmen shot up its offices. Twelve people were killed, and Houellebecq canceled activities promoting his new book, Soumission, about a near-future France run as an Islamic state. Before the tragedy, however, came the farce. In 2011, Houellebecq briefly disappeared; rumors abounded, and The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq takes one of them and spins it into a neat, handheld mockumentary tale of a wasting intellectual revived by his earthy kidnappers’ joie de vivre.
Tiny and gaunt compared to the pair of bodybuilders and their tubby boss who nab him, Michel (starring as himself) manages not only to put one of his new friends in a headlock during a mock wrestling match, but to partake (twice!) of the services of a prostitute kindly provided for him. She’s a local girl named Fatima, in case there’s anyone provokable who’s left to be provoked. The kidnappers chain Michel to a bed sometimes, and shots of one or the other muscleman chatting with their demanding victim (about literary technique, of all things) include a child’s doll standing in the corner, propping up the trendy, matter-of-fact absurdity this flick requires. Though the director, Guillaume Nicloux, is also credited for the script, the concerns are all his subject’s. There’s no prejudice here—only passionate, equal-opportunity scorn.
In The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq’s second novel and the one that started all the noise, one character suggests “literary fame is a poor substitute for real stardom.” But Houellebecq has certainly done better than most Anglophone authors in drawing the world’s attention. Here, with his invisible upper lip, his stoop, his glass of wine, his cigarette perpetually gripped (or begged for) between third and ring finger—and with the whole movie predicated upon his persona, the tireless mourner of the twilit West—Houellebecq is a white dwarf, the posthumous remainder of a star. Everyone falls for him, even the migrant worker who lives out back, in a shipping container. The film is a success—it’s funny—but only because the whole thing is a little sad.