Monday, March 23, 2015

Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating...

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (2014) - Nicloux
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Michel Houellebecq, the énfant terrible of French Literature, is regarded by many as the best European writer to emerge in decades. My first Houellebecq was Elementary Particles in the late 90s- the book was repulsive, depraved, nihilistic and shocking but I couldn't put it down. I gotta admit that I am a big fan. I've read all his books since then. What's great about his work is, however incendiary and miserablist it might sound, there is always much humanism that runs through at its core.

However, he's been accused of being an Islamophobe for some incendiary passages in many of his novels, namely Platform. It was his caricature on the cover of Charlie Hebdo when the place was shot up by Islamic militants, leaving 12 people dead early this year. The cover's title ran: 'Predictions of the future by Houellebecq: in 2015, I lose my teeth, in 2022, I observe ramadan.' It was the satirical paper's take on his new novel, Submission, where fictional France has a Muslim president in 2022 and all of Europe 'submits' to Muslim. He had to fold his book promotion and go into a retreat in an undisclosed location.

The infamous author is keenly aware of his mortality. In his 2010 book, The Map and the Territories (Prix Goncourt winner), a writer named Houellebecq gets brutally murdered, his body splayed in his pad, totally unrecognizable. Yes, he has a very grim sense of humor about himself and very aware of the real danger.

Obviously predating the Charlie Hebdo incident, director Guilloume Nicloux (The Nun) directs a documentary style comedy based on Houellebecq's brief disappearance during a book promotional tour in 2011. With his dislikes for cellphones and computers, no one could locate his whereabouts for several weeks, bringing French media into hysteria, fearing for the worst. He came back as if nothing has happened and being tight-lipped about the absence ever since.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq stars Houellebecq as himself. It starts slowly, following the very unattractive, cumudgeonly writer- with balding head and a troll-like underbite, as he goes through his normal days - talking to his friends about art, literature and music. He seems to lead a rather quiet existence, for a person who is regarded as 'the most controversial author of our time'. Most of the time he seems docile except when his opinionated crankiness coming to the fore- he chides his old friend in his indecipherable mumble for her terrible piano playing and says things like how Mozart is overrated.

He gets kidnapped from his highrise apartment by three burly men, the brothers Luc, Max and Mathieu who put him in a big metal box with air holes punched in on top. Obviously quite new at this sort of thing, they bring the author to their parent's house and ties his cuffed hands to a bed post with a chain in what appears to have been a little girl's room. Luc, a large man who claims to be a gypsy, has a beef with Houellebecq because apparently the author shat on HP Lovecraft in one of his books. The writer vehemently denies it, saying, "Don't believe everything media tells you".

Houellebecq muses loudly in front of the brothers why they are not masked. Does this mean they will kill him? No no no, they assure him that the captivity will be over as soon as they get paid by their clients, whoever they are. Do they know what they are doing? "Oh, let us worry about that!"

The author starts getting on people's nerves with incessant whining and demands for cigarette and wine. There is a running gag of Houellebecq yelling out for lighter that Luc apparently stole from him. What's he gonna do, start a fire?

There are many hysterical scenes as unwitting brothers asking him questions about literature and reciting poem they wrote in the 8th grade for him to judge. The brothers being into weightlifting (Mathieu) and martial arts (Max is a UFC style fighter, Luc trained in Isreali army), they show off their skills in front of the frail writer. They teach him a move or two to even try out on them. They even get a local young woman named Fatima at his request for his enjoyment. Well first it's Gigette, the boys' old mother who suggests the bored writer porn, in which he responds, "I'd prefer a real thing?"

As his release date gets pushed back further into unknown, a sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome sets in - even though the differences they have, they like this little troll of a man. Wryly funny and surprisingly heartwarming, The Kidnapping successfully puts a human face on the infamous, supposedly hate mongering public persona.

In this day and age, it's difficult to drown out all the noises in the media as to get to the truth of it all. It is a common mistake to assume a fictional character's view on life as his/her creator. Judging Houellebecq's world view by the characters he created would be as absurd as shooting up Charlie Hebdo headquarters because they publish satirical cartoons. Nicloux's film then, is a light satire on a famous public figure and slap in the face for those who can't take a joke. The bottom line is, the film is very funny.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq has an exclusive 2-week run engagement at Film Forum, NY. Please visit Kino Lorber website for more info