Capturing the elusive Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq, enfant terrible

Michel Houellebecq is France’s most controversial writer and thinker today, with his books labelled as ‘pornographic’ and ‘pamphlet literature’[i]. He openly criticises Islam[ii], a debate particularly pertinent in a time when French culture seems to be diminishing, in a France some view as ‘overrun by Muslim immigrants’[iii]. He has strong opinions on the current state of France, particularly the poor period for French literature he believes us to be in. The controversy surrounding Houellebecq awards him media attention – Michael Karwowski writes that he has ‘probably initiated more acres of newsprint than any other writer, living or dead’[iv]. With his reputation preceding him, we would think we had a pretty good preconception of the maverick modern-day intellectual, but Houellebecq reminds us in the 2014 film L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq, ‘c’est comme tu croyais que les journalistes disent la vérité’ [00:41:07].

The Many Faces of Michel

In 2011, when he was due to embark on a book tour, Houellebecq mysteriously disappeared. Social media being what it is, rumours circulated that he had been kidnapped by Al Qaeda[v]. The real reason was less sensational; he had been in Spain with no internet connection[vi]. But from the kidnapping rumour came L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq (2014), directed by Guillaume Nicloux, a comedy-drama film starring the author as himself, speculating on what could have happened. Details of the kidnapping are kept deliberately vague to retain ambiguity surrounding the affair.

The film follows Houellebecq about his everyday life, parodying documentary tropes by tracking him from behind. Loud crashes and the camera steadily zooming in on Houellebecq build suspense, until Luc (Luc Schwarz), Mathieu (Mathieu Nicourt) and Maxime (Maxime Lefrancois), keeping their real names to maintain the documentary-reality, bundle him in a box and take him to Mathieu’s parents’ house. The kidnapping is rather anticlimactic (Houellebecq even asks ‘c’est ce qu’on appelle un enlèvement? [00:20:28]), with the three amateurs respectful and concerned for their whiny and demanding hostage. They make Houellebecq hold a copy of Libération, a newspaper he has appeared in several times[vii] and an ironic title given his current circumstances, for a photo[viii].

We get an insight into the various characterisations of Houellebecq. Founders reviews the film character as a ‘sad-sack version’ of himself’[ix]. Contrastingly, Ginette (Mathieu’s mother) remarks over the phone that ‘il est charmant, il est beau’ [00:56:23], painting him rather optimistically. Nicloux intended the film to be about Michel Thomas[x], Houellebecq’s real name, but as a work of ‘auto-fiction’, it is hard to distinguish truth from fabrication. The dialogue was partially ad-lib, capturing moments of reality[xi], but biographical truth is problematised. Rumours about Houellebecq are discussed, but he insists ‘tout est faux’ [00:41:00]. Manipulation of identity is shown in the film by visual disguise. Houellebecq remarks that unlike in novels, his kidnappers make no attempt to disguise themselves; subversively, in a later scene, when the characters are comfortable with each other, they don carnivalesque masks at dinner:

Fig. 1

Houellebecq branches out into new forms of media, becoming an actor as well as a writer/ poet/ philosopher… the phrase ‘jack of all trades’ comes to mind, but with his deadpan straight face he does a decent job; he says himself ‘je me suis trouvé objectivement drôle’[xii]. Additionally, he communicates his opinions to a wider platform through the medium of comedy. Houllebecq represents a new form of engagement, observing and commenting humorously on his situation[xiii]. Peripheral works including Enlèvement tie together the various Michels in the Houellebecquian universe and allow for a better understanding of Houellebecq’s works[xiv]; by questioning Luc’s interpretation of his study on the author Lovecraft, Houellebecq counters the criticism that his books are fetishizing or gratuitous [00:37:55-00:39:00].

Houellebecq the celebrity

Whoever he is, the public is fascinated with Houellebecq. He is instantly recognisable in Enlèvement due to his parka, blue shirt and the cigarette held between his middle and ring fingers. Before the kidnapping, he encounters an enthusiastic fan who says ‘vouz avez un physique particulier’ [09:30]. Houellebecq, meanwhile, is reluctant, displaying his trademark nonchalant expression, lower lip thrust out:

Fig. 2

There are several references to Houellebecq as a public figure. He gives his reason for attending church less often being that he was all over the press [00:05:30] (something which stresses him out). When he is kidnapped, he warns his captors that his disappearance won’t go unnoticed as he never misses a meeting [00:20:57]. Enlèvement communicates the increased visibility, accountability and fame of authors, not just of their works. Without the media, Houellebecq would have no persona, no voice and no oeuvre; he is as dependent on the media as he is on alcohol and tobacco in the film[xv]. The rumours surrounding his disappearance in the press are what prompted the film, and it served as a means to promote his upcoming book, La Carte et le Territoire. Other book releases have also drawn media attention, such as 2015’s Soumission, a critique on Islam, the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident, earning Houellebecq a place on the magazine’s cover as a caricaturised Nostradamus.

Houellebecq the philosopher

The film demonstrates the typically Houellebecquian lack of political correctness. There is a stark close-up of a vulva [00:34:43]; the men discuss homosexuality crudely, laughing uproariously when Houellebecq says ‘je suis vierge’ ‘le cul?’ ‘oui’ [00:43:48]. Nevertheless, there are moments of lucidity as Nicloux manipulates traditional interview format to transmit Houellebecq’s ideas on life, the universe and everything. A reverse Stockholm syndrome unfolds[xvi], and the captors try to squeeze information from Houellebecq on a range of topics, in the most casual scenarios. He discusses Alexandrines and poetry in the bedroom, and the Armenian genocide over the dinner table. In the penultimate sequence, Houellebecq and Luc are sitting on a bench by the motorway, discussing the future of democracy. For Houellebecq, ‘la démocratie c’est quand les propositions des lois viennent de la population’ and Europe is ‘une régression’ choosing instead ‘un gouvernement des experts’ [01:29:16-01:30:35]. In an interview with Galeforce TV[xvii], Houellebecq describes his satisfaction at being able to articulate these ideas clearly on camera – something he admits he is not always able to do in interviews.

These fly-on-the-wall conversations render grand ideas about literature, philosophy and politics more accessible. The friendship between Houellebecq and the kidnappers reconciles class boundaries, although Houellebecq argues only his opinion on literature counts. Hierarchies of intelligence are dismantled slightly, as the captors teach Houellebecq their own interests such as free-fighting, using typecasting to visual effect as the feeble Houellebecq takes on the colossal Luc. Class difference is also shown via location. Enlèvement opens with Houellebecq’s criticism of his apartment building, designed by Le Courbusier, likening his architecture to a concentration camp. The camera pans over the ‘vertical village’, showing its lack of charm, yet Luc comments on the ‘nice view’. A cut from the quaint interior of Mathieu’s parents’ house depicts a silent aerial shot of the dilapidated countryside where they live.

Houellebecq the Intellectual?

So how does Houellebecq’s public figure and philosopher status measure up on the intellectual scene? With his troves of controversy, he is the stern de Beauvoir’s polar opposite, as she defends the female experience while Enlèvement explicitly shows Houellebecq with a prostitute. Gavin Bowd writes that Houellebecq is unapologetically anti-Sartre and contemptuous of the intellectuel engagé, including himself, as he says ‘j’ai toujours détesté l’idée que les écrivains prennent des positions politiques[xviii].

There are some parallels with well-known pillars of French intellectualism, namely Camus – ‘existential angst’[xix] is prominent in Houellebecq’s novels. A thread of existentialism runs through Enlèvement: the ending is ambiguous, depicting Houellebecq taking the wheel and speeding up until the scene cuts to the credits; earlier, Houellebecq mentions his indifference to death as ‘j’ai assez vécu’ [00:55:15]. We have perhaps a replacement Derrida, of Algerian descent and complete with his own docudrama. Houellebecq also captures the essence of the French intellectual stereotype through repeated motifs in the film of chain-smoking (a running joke being his constant hassling of his captors to give him a lighter) and drinking copious amounts of wine, as well as his air of l’ennui; Lorenzo Esposito, film programmer at the Berlinale film festival[xx] where the film was premiered, sums it up:

Fig. 3

 L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq is a curious portrayal of an unseen side to the contentious author. Who the real Michel is remains uncertain, but don’t be so quick to dismiss him as the public enemy – he is far more complex than that.

References

Fig. 1: Screencap from 01:05:10.

Fig. 2: Screencap from 00:09:53.

Fig. 3: Lorenzo Esposito, 2014. Available at: https://twitter.com/loresp/status/432054766508597248

Bibliography and Further Reading

Baggesgard, M. A. and Stephensen, J. L. 2019. Making off with Michel Houellebecq: Adaptational Strategies and La Carte et le Territoire. Australian Journal of French Studies. Vol. 56, No. 1, pp. 91-113.

Baroni, R. 2017. Houellebecq, de l’œuvre à la créature transmédiatique. In Cahier Houellebecq. Paris: Editions de l’Herne. pp. 364-368.

Bowd, G. 2019. The Anti-Sartre? Michel Houellebecq and Politics. Australian Journal of French Studies. Vo. 56, No.1, pp. 8-23.

Chrisafis, A. 2013. Michel Houellebecq stars as himself in film clarifying book four disappearance. The Guardian. 15/07/13. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/15/michel-houellebecq-film-book-disappear-kidnap Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Cusseau, C. 2014. L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq : nos questions au réalisateur Guillaume Nicloux. Allociné. 27/08/14. Available online at: http://www.allocine.fr/article/fichearticle_gen_carticle=18636264.html Date accessed: 11/11/19.

De Jonghe, M. 2017. Jouer son propre rôle – Michel Houellebecq dans L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq. Captures. Vol. 2, No.1. Dossier Écrivains à l’écran. Available at: revuecaptures.org/node/666 Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Dulver, A. 2014. The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq: Berlin 2014 – First Look Review. The Guardian. 08/02/14. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/08/the-kidnapping-of-michel-houellebecq-berlin-2014-review Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Founders, S. 2014. Berlin Film Review: The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. Variety. Available online at: https://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/berlin-film-review-the-kidnapping-of-michel-houellebecq-1201097185/ Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Hazareesingh, S. 2015. From Left Bank to left behind: where have the great French thinkers gone? The Guardian. 13/06/15. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/13/from-left-bank-to-left-behind-where-have-the-great-french-thinkers-gone Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Ilea, L. T.  2015. Soumission ou Capitalisation ? Une France antiutopique dans le roman Soumission et dans le film L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq. Caietele Echinox. No. 29, pp. 353-359.

Karwowski, M. 2003. Michel Houellebecq: French novelist for our times. Contemporary Review. Vol. 283, No. 1650, pp. 40-46.

L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq [film]. 2014. Dir. G. Nicloux. France: Arte.

Mannier, V. 2014. L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq : un acteur est né. TéléObs. 27/08/14. Available online at: https://teleobs.nouvelobs.com/la-selection-teleobs/20140825.OBS7123/l-enlevement-de-michel-houellebecq-un-acteur-est-ne.html Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Michel Houellebecq – Biography [webpage]. 1997-2010. The European Graduate School. Available online at: https://web.archive.org/web/20110224050530/http://www.egs.edu/faculty/michel-houellebecq/biography/ Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Michel Houellebecq on acting and democracy . 2019. Galeforce TV. 03/01/19. Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OP9H5IzdlH4 Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Mintzer, J. 2019. Thalasso: Film Review. Hollywood Reporter. Available online at: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/thalasso-review-1241370 Date accessed: 11/11/19.

Privet, G. 2015. Trésors de la morte-saison. L’Inconvénient. No. 60, pp. 52-54.

Sweeney, C. 2013. Michel Houellebecq and the Literature of Despair. London/New York: Bloomsbury.

Williams, R. 2012. Michel Houellebecq and Crime Fiction: between polar and poésie. In Jean Kaempfer and André Vanoncini (eds.), Revue critique de fixxion française contemporaine, No. 10.

Endnotes

[i] European Graduate School.

[ii] Karwowski, 2003.

[iii] Hazareesingh, 2015.

[iv] 2003, p.40.

[v] Founders, 2014.

[vi] Mannier, 2014.

[vii] de Jonghe, 2017.

[viii] See featured photo.

[ix] 2014.

[x] Mannier, 2014.

[xi] Cusseau, 2014.

[xii] Mannier, 2014.

[xiii] Bowd, 2019.

[xiv] Baggesgard and Stephensen, 2019.

[xv] ibid. p.6.

[xvi] Dulver, 2014.

[xvii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OP9H5IzdlH4

[xviii] Bowd, 2019, p.40.

[xix] Karwowski, 2003, p.41.

[xx] https://twitter.com/loresp

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s