Berlin Film festival : Houellebecq PLAYS Houellebecq

Article published on Feb. 17, 2014
Article published on Feb. 17, 2014

The Kidnapping of Mi­chel Houel­le­becq has been one of the big successes at the Berlin film festival. The award-winning author brings an ironic, hilarious and utterly bizarre version of himself to the screen.  

The ticket is too small. It reads "The Kid­nap­ping of Michel...". It's a safe bet that a film called "The Kid­nap­ping of Michel..." would not have brought out the crowds. But the full title is "The Kid­nap­ping of Michel Houel­le­becq", and that one little addition changes every­thing. The first two show­ings at this year's Berlin Film Fes­ti­val were sold out and five min­utes be­fore the third show­ing a queue of at least a hun­dred peo­ple are wait­ing for the doors to open, eager to see the début of Michel Houel­le­becq, the 2010 Prix Goncourt win­ner, on the sil­ver screen.

The name says it all . The au­thor of Atom­ised and The Map and the Ter­ri­tory is a star: per­haps the most fa­mous French au­thor abroad right now. Houelle­becq's style and per­son­al­ity fas­ci­nate both pub­lic and press, not least of all thanks to his un­ex­plained dis­ap­pear­ance in Sep­tem­ber 2011, when he seemed to mys­te­ri­ously van­ish from the face of the earth. Spec­u­la­tion was rife but this disappearance has re­mained un­ex­plained.

Mixed mar­tial arts and a cig­a­rette lighter

This is the mys­tery which Guil­laume Nicloux's film The Kid­nap­ping of Mi­chel Houel­le­becq in­tends to shed light on. And of course, Mi­chel Houel­le­becq could only be played by one man: Mi­chel Houel­le­becq him­self. The story is so ab­surd that you won­der for a mo­ment whether it might not con­tain a mor­cel of truth. Houelle­becq gets him­self kid­napped by three beefy body­builders, who take him to a house in the Loir-et-Cher re­gion of France. There, be­tween deep lit­er­ary con­ver­sa­tions with his jail­ers, a ten­ta­tive ini­ti­a­tion into mixed mar­tial arts and his ob­ses­sional need for a cig­a­rette lighter, Houlle­becq grad­u­ally set­tles into his role as a pris­oner. Is this a case of Stock­holm Syn­drome, or a re­al­i­sa­tion that an un­ex­pected event has livened up a life which no longer re­ally in­ter­ests him? Upon his re­lease, Houel­le­becq tells his kid­nap­pers, who have now be­come his host fam­ily:  "I would have liked to stay longer. I'll come back and visit."

Clip from Guil­laume Ni­cloux's film (sub­ti­tles in Eng­lish).

fortress of irony

With his eleventh fea­ture film, Guil­laume Ni­cloux wanted to shed light on Mi­chel Houel­le­becq "the man", but it is un­clear whether the film re­ally meets his ob­jec­tive. The film is very, very funny. The ab­sur­dity of the sit­u­a­tion and the often bizarre re­ac­tions of the pris­oner and his jail­ers in the face of this hostage-tak­ing make the whole thing truly hi­lar­i­ous. But it is irony which reigns above all. And, as so is often the case, irony is there to build a fortress around a char­ac­ter to pre­vent ac­cess to his true iden­tity. How to tell fact from fic­tion? Are we watch­ing the real Houel­le­becq or a char­ac­ter con­stantly play­ing him­self? "Maybe he or­dered his own kid­nap­ping", one of the Bea­gle Boys even starts to won­der. It's not the most un­likely sce­nario.

Guil­laume Ni­cloux's the kid­nap­ping of michel houelle­becq will be re­leased in cin­e­mas  soon. @

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Ar­ticle orig­i­nally pub­lished on the Goethe In­sti­tute's blog Ber­li­nale Blog­gers.

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