The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (L'Enlevement de Michel Houellebecq): Berlin Review

Berlinale
Speculative docu-thriller turns rumor into humor.

The controversial cult author learns to love his kidnappers in this bleakly funny French farce.

BERLIN -- A playful blurring of fact and fiction, this darkly funny entry in the Panorama section of the Berlin film festival features the aging enfant terrible of French literature, Michel Houellebecq, playing himself with an edge of knowing self-caricature. The plot builds on speculation about the author's real disappearance from a promotional book tour back in 2011. The writer-director Guillaume Nicloux, who competed in the Berlinale last year with his period literary adaptation The Nun, summaries his new film as "truth, lies, suppositions." It is also an inspired comic thriller, with potential to attract a small but dedicated international audience among both Houellebecq's fans and critics.
 
Notorious for his misanthropic and contrarian views in France, Houellebecq has not been lucky with cinema so far. The best adaptation of his work to date was Phillip Harel's elegantly bitter Whatever in 1999. The worst was the author's own clunky 2008 attempt to direct his own novel, The Possibility of an Island. But while Houellebecq did not script Nicloux's kidnap film, it still manages to capture some of his signature tone of sour, absurd, deadpan humor, which was lacking in previous adaptations.
 
Shot in hand-held documentary style, with a naturalistic and semi-improvised feel to the dialog, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq initially follows the lugubrious author as he meets and chats with various Parisian friends. At 57, he looks at least a decade older, possibly a result of the heavy drinking and chain-smoking that features in almost every scene. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, a small gang of bodybuilders and petty criminals are finalizing plans abduct Houellebecq at the behest of their shadowy off-screen boss.
 
Smuggled away to a remote Polish gypsy compound in a featureless rural no man's land outside Paris, the author initially responds to his new circumstances with glum resignation. Soon he is charming his kidnappers, who respect his intellectual reputation, even when he barrages them with diva-ish demands for fine wines and the services of a local prostitute (Maria Bourjala). Nicloux finds rich comic material in the physical and cultural clash between this puny-looking man of letters and his muscle-bound captors as they gradually form an unlikely mutual bond. "Thank you for making my captivity enjoyable," Houellebecq tells the kindly Polish matriarch of the house.
 
Working as part of a capable ensemble cast, most of them minor players in French television, Houellebecq plays himself convincingly -- indeed, he appears genuinely drunk in some scenes, which seems quite likely. This film is not his first experiment with fictionalized autobiography. In his most recent novel, The Map and the Territory, which won France's grandest literary prize, he not only made himself a character but also killed himself off in a grisly murder. The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq ends more happily, but its lack of firm explanations may leave some feeling cheated. This is an odd little French farce with decidely niche appeal, but it will reward curious viewers with its understated humor and unexpected warmth.
 
Production company: Les Films de Worso
Producer: Sylvie Pialat
Cast: Michel Houellebecq, Maria Bourjala, Luc Schwarz, Mathieu Nicourt, Maxime Lefrançois
Director: Guillaume Nicloux
Writer: Guillaume Nicloux
Cinematographer: Christophe Offenstein
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Sales company: Le Pacte, Paris
Unrated, 92 minutes
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