You would expect the meeting between novelist Michel Houellebecq and writer/director duo Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern to pop with absurdist, sly, deadpan humour, judging both by Mr. Houellebecq's performance in the hugely enjoyable The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq and the offbeat gags of Messrs. Delépine and Kervern's Louise-Michel or Mammuth. Surprisingly, and affectingly enough, not so (despite a peculiar entr'acte envolving a cycling game with jawbusters and figurines).

     The melancholy streak that came through in Mammuth, where Gérard Depardieu played a retiree retreading his life, comes full bore in Near Death Experience, extending that sense of a life examined to the calm and collected decision of call-center employee Paul (played by Mr. Houellebecq) to kill himself in the mountains surrounding his town. It's probably the most radical and austere film Messrs. Delépine and Kervern have ever made: for nearly all of its length Mr. Houellebecq is all alone on screen on actual locations, and there's practically no dialogue other than Paul's voiceover, filling in the blanks for what's happening on screen.

     The novelist may not be playing himself here, but there's a huge sense that his performance extrapolates clearly from his public image. The fact he plays a frustrated call-center employee who feels his life is essentially over is not mere "slumming" or dilettantism, but an actual engaging with themes and meditations that he has explored before, whether in writing or elsewhere. And his sheer presence, halfway between a sad clown and a sly wit, helps give Paul's decision to let go of life a gravitas, a realization of what's wrong with modern civilization.

     Would Near Death Experience work as well with another actor? Who knows; even with Mr. Houellebecq, the film has issues of rhythm and occasional flagging that suggest a full-length feature may not have been the fittest format for the rigorous experimentalism being explored here (more visible in the constant and deliberate shifting in image quality and grain). But the subterranean emotion at work in what effectively is a suicide letter from the pits of despair gives the film a heft that can't be easily displaced, even if you feel this isn't exactly Messrs. Delépine and Kervern's most accomplished work. They're actually taking chances here, and that makes it fascinating.

France, 2014
90 minutes
Cast Michel Houellebecq, Marius Bertram, Manon Chancé
Directors and writers Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern; cinematographer Hugues Poulain (colour, widescreen); editor Stéphane Elmadjian; production company No Money Productions
Screened March 26th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


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