PRINT April 2015


Guillaume Nicloux’s Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq

Guillaume Nicloux, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 92 minutes. Michel Houellebecq.

TO TAKE THE NARRATORS of his various novels at their collective word, author Michel Houellebecq would seem to think few things are so banal—or, perhaps more accurately, so much a thing of the past—as people. In the opening pages of his first published volume, Whatever (1994), the writer deplored how “the world is becoming more uniform before our eyes,” such that “human beings are often bent on making themselves conspicuous by subtle and disagreeable variations, defects, character traits, and the like.” His most celebrated novel, The Elementary Particles (1998), subsequently portrayed emotional bonds as the stuff of science fiction, with interpersonal relationships and sexual intimacy giving way in the future to solitary cloning. Indeed, even when imagining something so personal as the details of his own fictional murder, as in The Map and the Territory (2010), Houellebecq renders public reaction in the mold of convention and platitude, while noting that the detective investigating the crime would say, “‘I know human beings’ . . . in the same tone in which one would say ‘I know cats’ or ‘I know computers.’” To be human in a Houellebecq novel, it seems, is to be mired in cliché, staring, often unwittingly, into the cracked mirror of a kind of historical determinism.

Which makes the implications of this novelist’s decision to play himself in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq—a movie written and directed by Guillaume Nicloux—all the more curious. Inspired by a real-life episode when the author failed to appear for a leg of his book tour through Europe in 2011—giving rise to widespread rumors of his psychological collapse and, in some circles, of his abduction by Al Qaeda operatives—Nicloux’s film opens with a cool sense of parody. The author first appears going about his daily routines, preoccupied with remodeling his apartment, before making the occasional sweeping observation about the vacuity of postwar culture—as when he says of his building, “The idea of the vertical village became a dystopia in Ballard’s books. And now, it means nothing.” Then, with relatively little forewarning, this towering figure of French literature—though comically diminutive as a physical presence—is summarily stuffed into a trunk and carted off to rural France by a trio of amateur kidnappers, all brothers, among them a freestyle wrestler, a competitive bodybuilder, and an overweight concierge.

From then on, Kidnapping consists of little else than a series of alternately humdrum and charmingly improbable exchanges between the author and his abductors as the latter wait (and wait, and wait some more) for word from their anonymous client about what to do next. Yet it is here that a light play between cinematic scherzo and cinema verité opens onto more intriguing possibilities, particularly as Houellebecq’s frequent remarks on literature begin to reflect back on the film itself, as well as on the author. As he says at one point to a kidnapper asking about his writing craft, “Characters are the key.”

And in a film without any clearly evolving plot, characters take over: the aforementioned bodybuilder, who pushes Houellebecq to elaborate on why authors might prefer to emphasize story above style in their writing; the freestyle wrestler, who sits the author on the couch to watch fight videos before the author practices a “triangle” choke hold on the concierge—who, for his part, cannot understand why Houellebecq dismisses the works of Lovecraft. (“You shut your mouth about literature!” a drunken Houellebecq blurts out one evening at the dinner table, before shrieking, “I never said I was tolerant!”) Then there is the kidnappers’ elderly mother, who asks the novelist whether he might like to watch some porn to break the monotony of his captivity. And finally, at the center of it all, there is Houellebecq himself—who passes on her offer, but not without saying, with perhaps his most expressive look in the film, “A real girl, I wouldn’t say no to that.” (She is provided.)

It is through such flickers of personality—at once performed and, it seems, authentic, prompting the question of where the man ends and the fiction begins—that the audience for Kidnapping effectively trades places with the author. After all, as Houellebecq explains here, the writer is able to write novels because he “really listen[s].” If you wish to pen something about a “hood,” he says, you “talk to a hood, and you have your hood part.” In other words, every person may be seen as a type, a figure capable of being abstracted into an articulation of the world—an abstraction that, conversely, made him possible, at least in part. Put another way, for Houellebecq, subjectivity, literary or otherwise, is little more than a found object. Yet in this sense, Kidnapping is neither a spoof of Houellebecq’s real-life disappearance nor an allegorical tale of his incarceration by public opinion or by his literary reception. Instead, Houellebecq is, like each of us, a prisoner of himself and of his times, with even his eventual release seeming like anything but.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is currently playing (through April 7) at Film Forum in New York.

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.