'Near Death Experience': Venice Review

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A fascinating if somewhat slight trip into the mind of a suicidal call-center employee

French oddball directors Gustave Kervern and Benoit Delepine cast French literary sensation Michel Houellebecq as a suicidal man who's into cycling

The no-budget, fascinating-as-a-train-wreck feature Near Death Experience, from eccentric French directorial duo Gustave Kervern and Benoit Delepine (Le Grand Soir, Mammuth), stars French literary giant Michel Houellebecq as an absolutely average and totally burnt-out employee of a call center who’s driven to suicide. This intimate psychological drama is set in the great outdoors, as it follows the protagonist into the mountains where he might end it all. A one man show for practically its entire running time, NDE, as it’s also being called, manages to stay dramatically grounded despite its possibly pretentious casting choice and subject. The intellectual beau monde in Paris could turn this into a minor cause celebre when it’s released in France on Sept. 10, though elsewhere, theatrical play will be peanuts. The film’s festival run kicked off with a berth in Venice’s more experimental Horizons section.

The film, shot in widescreen but with a mediocre-quality digital camera, starts with footage of a stormy night, alternating with flashes of the opening credits. Darkness indeed lies ahead for Paul (Houellebecq), who pays for a drink for his colleagues at a bar but who seems to stand entirely outside the group of merrymakers. The next day, it’s Friday the 13th and a report on TV on the bad-luck phenomenon as well as a general sense of indifference from his wife and teenage children make Paul decide to simply walk out of his own life.

Except that he’s on a racing bike, using the excuse he’ll get some exercise as a reason to get out of the house. As soon as he’s left the suburbs and is up in the nearby mountains, Paul ditches his bike and continues on foot. In a good example of the film’s very black yet true-to-life humor, the protagonist steps over the railing at a belvedere and is about to jump when a "bonjour," uttered by an unsuspecting passing tourist, stops him dead in his tracks.

The camera moves in for an extreme close-up of Paul’s eyes, and the directors then segue into the first of a long list of confessions by Paul in voiceover. Ironically, his first order of business is explaining that he’s always prided himself on finishing everything, both professionally and in his private life. High up on a dam, not much later, Paul can’t jump because, yet again, other people are there. As if to somehow explain his ineptness, he says that if he hadn’t had kids, he "would’ve done it a long time ago."

It’s not immediately clear if he’s just suicide-shy in front of others, genuinely concerned for those who might see him take his own life or simply looking for an excuse not to do it. But as the confessions pile up, it does become clear that he’s sick of simply having had a "life-ish existence." His ruminations and frustrations are often recognizable and profound, such as when he says that when he got married, he gave up his freedom but he gained tranquility. After having made three piles of rocks, he starts to talk to them out loud, saying to the two smaller piles, representing his kids: "A dead father is worth more than a father without a life."

More than occasionally, Paul’s non-will to live is also a source of the typical black humor Kervern and Delepine are known for, such as when Paul gets thirsty and walks into someone’s garden to take a sip from the pool. Upon being told it’s not drinking water, he deadpans: "I don’t care. I’m dead anyway." 

However, despite its humor and verbal dexterity, the film’s modest means and single-protagonist format do make the entire enterprise feel somewhat slight, though this perhaps paradoxically feels appropriate for a feature about someone who thinks his absence would be preferable to his presence. And as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the directors and Houellebecq have possibly made cinema history’s first existentialist doodle — and certainly cinema’s first existentialist doodle to feature racing bikes as well as arias and songs by Black Sabbath on the soundtrack.

A novelist-slash-celebrity intellectual who’s not afraid of a little controversy, kind of like a contemporary French Gore Vidal, Houellebecq is a surprisingly great choice for the role of a 56-year-old sad sack, with his deep-sunken eyes and the absence of his upper lip compensated by a very present lower lip giving him a world-weary, almost droopy air. Like Vidal, Houellebecq is no stranger to cinema, having starred earlier this year as himself in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq and having directed several shorts as well as his own feature adaptation of the novel The Possibility of an Island in 2008. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, NDE further confirms that he might have a future in front of the camera as well as behind it.

Production companies: No Money Productions, Ad Vitam
Cast: Michel Houellebecq, Marius Bertram, Manon Chance
Directors-Screenwriters: Gustave Kervern, Benoit Delepine
Director of photography: Hugues Poulain
Editor: Stephane Elmadjian
Sales: Funny Balloons

No rating, 86 minutes