The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (2014)

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*. They order things differently in France.
*. In France, novelists can be celebrities and public intellectuals. Michel Houellebecq is such a figure. I’ve done him the “honour” (as Luc puts it here) of reading several of his books, which are interesting but repetitive (I’d advise you to just read one, any one). He writes like he looks: dyspeptic, jaded, almost a caricature with his exaggerated nihilism, homeless chic and protuberant billow of a lower lip.
*. In France, ugly men get to bed babes. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg are the archetype. I’d include Vincent Cassel and Monica Belluci as well (though they were married at the time and some people think Cassel is a sexy guy). Houellebecq and Marie Bourjala here. She’s much less than half his age too. As Houellebeq admits, French writers have a thing for the young stuff.
*. In France people smoke a lot, drink a lot of wine, and enjoy their meals, where they talk a lot about art and politics. That last point is very alien to a North American audience.

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*. So The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is a French film. That it reminded me of nothing so much as Norman Mailer’s Wild 90 doesn’t change this, as I think there’s more than a bit of Mailer in Houellebecq, albeit he plays his advertisements for himself in a very different key.
*. As with Wild 90 we’re dealing with a cast of mainly non-actors working without a script. This is a limitation that seems to have been ignored by many of the film’s reviewers, who almost universally praised the table talk. I was less impressed. Perhaps American critics were amazed that people eating dinner were talking to each other at all.
*. It’s a talky movie, but the conversation doesn’t go anywhere. Topics are raised but none of them are intelligently discussed or debated. Houellebecq simply delivers opinions like a television pundit, without any argument or reasoning behind them.
*. I do think there’s a point to it all. The celebrity, we are being told, is a kind of captive. Aside from the handcuffs and not having a lighter, Houellebecq’s life in the junkyard is no different than his life in the high-rise. Both locations are compared to concentration camps. Within them Houellebecq will be tended by various minders (his agent, his kidnappers). They will feed him, even arrange a woman for him. He will find it all very boring but entertain them.

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*. The escapes from boredom are the usual ones (for men): drink, women, dreaming of women, working out, fast cars. Houellebecq is an artist, but he still has all the basic urges. He has fantasies of being the male gaze behind Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” (a vision that appears without the bush). “We need some cunt!” Mailer roars. Let’s box. Let’s wrestle.
*. It’s all very muted. The direction by Guillaume Nicloux is understated and there is no score. Because Houellebecq isn’t an actor I think he was likely told not to do too much. This is always good advice.
*. The story is hard to figure out, as it’s never clear who is behind the kidnapping. Was Houellebecq himself in on it? The best scene in the movie comes as he rides an elevator together with his kidnappers and it seems as though he knows that the box with the air holes is for him. Or maybe he’s only dreaming his own imprisonment. Talk about no exit.
*. Houellebecq himself comes off better than I would have imagined from reading his books, though I still wouldn’t want to spend any real time with him. He seems like someone who enjoys his own company more than that of others. I don’t know why he hasn’t moved to America.

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