Following in the footsteps of some fairly remarkable hybrid documentaries to hit the international film festival circuit this past year (The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell), The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq comes as an absurd and unabashedly French take on the genre. The film builds on the mysterious disappearance of France’s literary enfant terrible during a 2011 promotional book tour in the Netherlands. Unexplained to this day, Houellebecq’s surprise vanishing act left the European media in a state of frenzy for weeks, culminating in demands that the French government investigate whether he had been taken hostage by al-Qaeda.
While the rumors eventually subsided, director Guillaume Nicloux seized the opportunity to create his own take on the events of 2011. We meet Houellebecq over the course of his daily grind in the suburbs of Paris – the author, known for his literary bravado, cuts a puny, withered figure as he shuffles down the grey city streets, lighting a new Gauloise cigarette quicker you can say “lung cancer”. Whether or not Houellebecq is deliberately playing into society’s caricatured image of him, he does so with surprising good humour, portraying his own character with a total lack of self-aggrandizement- to the point that many will take time to warm to his apathetic presence and habit of ending sentences with “and it means nothing.” His chronic grouchiness and incomprehensible mumbling during these first twenty minutes will test the patience of anyone who isn’t an existing fan of his brand of Gaullic nihilism. Perhaps the only time we see him truly come to life is during the re-decoration of his apartment, during which he passionately and vehemently speaks out against Scandinavian design aesthetics.
Meanwhile, in another Paris neighborhood, a group of thugs finalize their plans to abduct Houellebecq under the orders of an unseen mobster. It comes as a sigh of relief when these two intertwining stories finally come together – the unscripted, deadpan dialogue between the grumpy intellectual and his burly kidnappers is laugh-out-loud funny for the most part of the film. Shot in documentary-style handheld camera, the action occurs spontaneously and clumsily – and that isn’t a bad thing. Once the two parties come to head to head for the climactic (if you can call it that) section of the film, the largely improvised dialogue lends their interactions a downbeat, Clerks-style humor that comes as a refreshing change in the wake of all those saccharine French comedies we’ve seen over the last couple of years.
Trapped and confused in an old Polish couple’s house in rural France, the author resigns himself remarkably quickly to his new life in captivity, and becomes affable in no time. The film quickly moves from one absurd set piece to the next, with Houellebecq requesting fine wines and prostitutes from his kidnappers, who seem torn between feeling pity and awe for the scrawny intellectual. A reverse case of Stockholm syndrome begins to develop between the captors and their captive, who dazzles them with his views on politics and literature to the point where they are quite sad to see him go.
In an amusing twist on the auteur theory, Houellebecq (the real-life author) literally displaces Nicloux (the cinematic author) from his directorial role, managing to introduce a series of typically Houellebecquian scenarios and characters that put his own stamp on the movie’s plot. The author’s brief romance with a down-and-out neighborhood prostitute of seemingly Arab descent is perhaps the only truly uncomfortable meeting of life and art, the shaky documentary camera lending a grimy realism to what would otherwise be another of the Houellebecq’s glamorous literary fantasies. Rendered real, the scenario takes on a rather needless air of provocation.
Speaking at Tribeca Film Festival, Guillaume Nicloux discussed the improvisational process by which these scenes came to be. A series of planned situations, from dinner table conversations to a hilarious scene in which a beefy thug teaches Houellebecq how to wrestle, were established as fictional parameters in which the actors were allowed experiment during the shoot. “If all documentaries are fiction,” asks Nicloux, “Why not make it fiction from the start?”
Nicloux proposes the idea that Houellebecq was, literally, kidnapped for the making of the documentary. Being forced into various emotional and physical situations has, in a sense, allowed the traditionally withdrawn author a structure in which to let loose on screen. The experiment seems to have paid off – as the film wears on, Houellebecq – quite visibly intoxicated – begins to open up about topics ranging from his childhood to his inability to whistle. Removed from his real-life literary persona, Houellebecq’s fictional performance delivers, ironically, some of the most sincere public statements he has ever made regarding his personal life.
While the film is unlikely to stretch beyond a niche festival and Francophile audience (and with good reason), its playful blending of biopic, improvisation and odd couple farce is a neat reminder that France is still capable of producing unique, intelligent comedies.
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