'Thalasso': Film Review

Thalasso Still 1 - Wild Bunch Distribution Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Wild Bunch Distribution
Houellebecq and Depardieu hit the sauna.

Director Guillaume Nicloux’s follow-up to his 2014 feature 'The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq' premiered internationally at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Whether you love him or hate him, it’s undeniable that French writer Michel Houellebecq is one of the seminal authors of our time. After all, not many novelists today have had their names turned into adjectives, with the term “Houellebecquian” signifying the kind of darkly comic contemporary malaise — the melancholy of shopping malls and supermarkets, of tasteless microwave dinners and nondescript residential towers, of loveless copulating, eternal solitude and collective failure — that have characterized his novels since his breakthrough debut from 1994, Whatever.

Outside the literary sphere, Houellebecq may also be one of the only major writers of our time, or any time for that matter, to maintain a side career as a movie star — albeit a very particular one. In Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, which premiered in Cannes back in 2014, the author headlined a film where he was held for ransom by a gang of Keystone Cop-ish thugs. The result, surprising to some — though perhaps not to fans of the novelist’s uncomfortable brand of humor — was one of the more memorable performances in a recent French comedy, with Houellebecq hilariously, and tragically, playing himself in a series of deadpan sketches. 

The writer is back on screen, and this time accompanied by Gérard Depardieu (who already starred in Nicloux’s features Valley of Love and The End) with Thalasso, basically a follow-up to Kidnapping that only really makes sense if you’ve seen the first movie. That said, this patchwork of a sequel is less amusing and more silly than its predecessor, with a plot so thin you can barely see it and a cameo appearance by, pourquoi pas?, a Sylvester Stallone look-alike. Made on a small budget in what looks like a matter of days, the film came out in France late August and has had a decent theatrical run thus far. It debuts internationally at San Sebastian.

Set entirely at an upscale health spa located in the seaside town of Cabourg (a city made famous by another writer, Marcel Proust), the movie more or less entails Nicloux putting Houellebecq — a skeleton of a man with a perpetual, bemused scowl — through all sorts of unpleasant body and facial treatments while Dépardieu sits at his side. Denied his usual vices of smoking and drinking (early on, Houellebecq claims to consume a bottle of wine with each meal), the writer finds solace in the bacchanalian and gargantuan presence of France’s most famous actor, with the two casually shooting the breeze amid all their algae wraps, mud massages and cryotherapy treatments, while sneaking in cigarettes and alcohol whenever they can.

A story of sorts kicks in when Kidnapping’s trio of sentimental bandits — Maxime (Maxime Lefrançois), Mathieu (Mathieu Nicourt) and Luc (Luc Schwarz) — show up in Cabourg to enlist Houellebecq’s help in getting Maxime’s parents (Ginette Suchotsky, André Suchotsky) back together after their recent separation. Why anyone would ask the famously unromantic, and, some would say, highly misogynistic, writer for relationship tips is beyond the realm of understanding, but Thalasso pretty much operates in such a realm from start to finish.

The problem, though, is that whereas the first film bore a minimal level of suspense and also had the rather ingenious idea of surrounding Houellebecq with a bunch of dopey criminals, creating occasions for offbeat comedy (including a scene where the author tried to learn mixed martial arts techniques), the pairing with Depardieu doesn’t yield a whole lot of laughs here — perhaps because the veteran actor isn’t all that funny compared to the writer. You get the feeling Nicloux simply decided to toss his two favorite stars into a weird location and hoped to make magic out of it, but he strains to keep things interesting and his film doesn’t really go anywhere.

Shot almost like a documentary, with DP Christophe Offenstein (Tell No One) capturing the shenanigans in bland natural lighting that belongs in a reality TV show, Thalasso constantly oscillates between the absurd and the sad, between ennui and total farce, but does so less successfully than Kidnapping did. The result is nonetheless a work that remains uniquely, well, Houellebecquian — an extension of the author’s persona to the domain of the screen. Because who else but Houellebecq could turn five days at an exclusive spa into something so ludicrously grim?

Production companies: Les Films du Worso, Wild Bunch
Cast: Michel Houellebecq, Gérard Depardieu, Maxime Lefrançois, Mathieu Nicourt, Daria Panchenko, Luc Schwarz, Ginette Suchotsky, André Suchotsky
Director-screenwriter: Guillaume Nicloux
Producers: Sulvie Pialat, Benoît Quainon
Director of photography: Christophe Offenstein
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Composer: Julien Doré
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
93 minutes