Repetition and routine are at the heart of Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s Near Death Experience, a dryly absurd and darkly comic look at fate, suicide and nature starring controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq. The film initially relies on irritation: its opening credits concern a thunderstorm, with the list of cast and crew flashing onto the screen in time with the flashes of lightning; an early scene in Paul’s (Houellebecq) car sees him begin rhyming to the incessant beeping that is playing – these moments intentionally offset the viewer, making for an amusing contrast to slower scenes, like one where Paul sits in his living room battling with the dregs of some cask wine.
For the first 15 minutes of the film, we don’t see any face other than Houellebecq’s, the shots framed so as to only catch the torsos of Paul’s family and friends, and the film is an exploration of his mental state more than anything else. Paul is a longtime employee of a cable company who, on Friday the 13th and following a news report about fears concerning the number 13, rides his bike out to the mountainside of Provence with the intention of hurling himself down the cliff-face. His stream of consciousness voiceover kicks in at this point; with an extreme close-up on his eyes we learn that he prides himself on the completion of tasks, and that he views his suicidal leap as almost fated. What comes as a surprise to him is that at the moment of jumping he hesitates, distracted by children playing with a ball. Eventually the film becomes a one-man walk through the mountainscape, as the still-suicidal Paul relays to us his theories of life and death, how the old are caught in a collective suicide, unable to commit to the act itself because of their children, why he never participated in sports because he never felt the need to prolong his life. Inside an abandoned house he mutters to himself about his job, re-enacting a conversation about a woman’s internet access whilst playing with a bull-ant on a stick.
Houellebecq’s dip into the world of acting is an eccentric and amusing career choice, and whilst he’s not as hysterical and impressive as he was in The Kidnapping of Michel Houllebecq (SFF 2014), he’s still reasonably compelling here. Even the sight of him onscreen is amusing – moving with a mopey gait, staring blankly as he takes a drag from his always drooping cigarette – the character of Paul is a darkly comic vision of determined lethargy. His casting is definitely a clever move, as Paul almost feels like another parodic incarnation of the novelist, relentlessly depressed, overintelluctual; NDE (as it is called in France), is even aware structurally of The Kidnapping, as here again Houellebecq disappears for sometime, no one comes looking for him, and the film ends with him at a roadside.
Hugues Poulain’s cinematography wonderfully captures the Provence landscape, of which its beauty only serves to heighten the humour in Paul’s mundane ruminations. Wandering around in an orange biking outfit with the Bic logo all over makes him easy to spot but also is a means through which he forever carries the idea of his office life with him. The use of the landscape is amusing in and of itself, at one point Paul slowly makes rock piles to represent his family, then apologises to them, the best confession is one where he tells the rock pile representing his wife that he watched pornography whilst she was in hospital.
The classical music used throughout is another great means of juxtaposition, bringing gravitas to some of the hilarious lines of voiceover dialogue – “15,000 years later I can’t make fire. I can’t even draw a cow” is a particular favourite. There’s a sudden roar of music when the film cuts to Paul, stuck on a rock face after attempting to climb up, and it’s one of the film’s funniest moments, not only in its suddenness (wonderfully cut by Stéphane Elmadjian) but also the reveal that he was barely off the ground at all.
Whilst the screenplay and Houellebecq’s performance serve to craft a wonderfully comedic portrait of a man who has given up on life, the film also injects some poignancy; there’s a moment later in the film where we learn the actual reason for Paul’s suicidal impulses are not necessarily borne from boredom, as he would have us believe. That said, Delépine and Kervern’s film always teeters on the edge of self-seriousness, before undercutting the emotion with simple yet effective absurdity -“Paul, you talk too much. And don’t commit suicide enough” – and that is what renders Near Death Experience a consistently surprising and amusing experience.