The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq

So much for public intellectuals being po-faced, overly serious elitists without a sense of humour. French agent provocateur writer and all-around-hyphenate Michel Houellebecq sends himself up gleefully, while taking himself entirely seriously, in writer/director Guillaume Nicloux's bewilderingly diverting and entirely unclassifiable UFO.

     A fiction shot like a documentary inspired by real events, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq starts off from the mysterious disappearance of the writer during a 2011 book tour. For a few days nobody knew of his whereabouts; when he reappeared to go on as if nothing had happened, without any sort of explanation, the episode gained a patina of mystery that reminds you of crime novelist Agatha Christie's temporary disappearance at the height of her fame.

     Mr. Nicloux, a friend of the novelist, fantasizes Mr. Houellebecq (essentially playing an alternate himself) to have been kidnapped by a trio of unlikely strongmen (Maxime Lefrançois, Mathieu Nicourt and Luc Schwarz) who keep him at the country home of the parents of one of them. Why he was taken, who is behind all of this and why the kidnappers never even hide their faces will remain unresolved throughout the film's length; both the novelist and the director prefer to gleefully subvert the expectations of the viewer, while simultaneously shattering and reinforcing the idea of a French cultural discourse.

     While the three kidnappers seem on the surface to be of the "brainless muscle" variety (including a true-life bodybuilder, Mr. Lefrançois, and an MMA fighter, Mr. Nicourt), it turns out there will be literary arguments fielded at the dinner table between the working class and the intellectual, prostitute trysts arranged by Mathieu's aging mother, conversations with a Polish mechanic that speaks no French, discussions about the power of creativity and the future of democracy, and cakes. The kidnapping turns out to be a sort of unexpected vacation from reality, a dream of finding refuge from the never-ending bustle of modern life, shot in apparent handheld improvisation with the camera embedded alongside Mr. Houellebecq and his kidnappers.

     More importantly, there is no sense of condescension or elitism in the whole project, ejected by the very dry, deadpan nature of the humour and the continuous comment on the expectations the nature of the modern media cycle place upon public figures. And the novelist's almost clownish, extremely shrewd presence not only fits very well his public persona as agent provocateur, it also explains very clearly why he does it: to allow a different, singular take on things we all take for granted.

     Although made for television, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is a perfect example of the current experiments in the so-called cinémas du réel, deliberately blurring the lines between documentary and fiction to create a narrative that borrows from both without choosing sides and leaving the viewer to make up his own mind as to what he is watching. It's also the best thing of Mr. Nicloux's that I've seen.

France, 2014
93 minutes
Cast Michel Houellebecq, Maxime Lefrançois, Mathieu Nicourt, Luc Schwarz
Director and screenwriter Guillaume Nicloux; cinematographer Christophe Offenstein (colour, widescreen); designer Olivier Radot; costumes Anaïs Romand; editor Guy Lecorne; production companies Les Films du Worso, Chic Films and ARTE France
Screened March 25th 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)


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