The latest offering from French writer and director Guillaume Nicloux, L’enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq (The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, released March 2015) is an odd and often hilarious mash-up of genres. By turns slapstick comedy, action thriller, and political satire, Nicloux’s film ends up delivering a much more profound exploration of France’s most controversial writer than it would first appear.
The writer in question, novelist Michel Houellebecq, is infamous in his native country (and, increasingly, outside of it) for his acidic and reactionary stances toward consumerism, capitalism and multiculturalism. His equal opportunity mockery has won him few friends, some grudging admirers and even threats of violence.
Houellebecq’s precarious position is such that when, in 2011, the writer briefly disappeared from public view, there was mass speculation that he had been killed or kidnapped by Islamic terrorists. He soon resurfaced, however, citing nothing more sinister than a downed internet connection. Nicloux plays with this overreaction, re-imagining a scenario in which Houellebecq was indeed kidnapped. The result is a fascinating look at both Houellebecq’s personality – the dour novelist plays himself with aplomb – as well as the role of the artist in modern European life.
The film opens on Houellebecq’s daily routine: attending Mass, editing galleys of his latest work, sipping wine and discussing Motown music with his friends, all while constantly chain-smoking cigarettes – but soon this comfortable Parisian existence is interrupted by three thuggish men who barge into Houellebecq’s apartment, stuff him in a metal box and cart him away to captivity in a rural farmhouse.
Nicloux harnesses the real fear of the kidnapping. Houellebecq is certain that, because his accosters are not wearing masks, he is to be killed, but this mortal tension dissolves as it becomes clear that they are merely middlemen who personally bear the novelist no ill will. Their initial impassivity soon turns to curiosity at hosting such a celebrity, and finally – in a sort of reverse-Stockholm syndrome – the kidnappers develop a palpable affection for the crotchety old writer.
As the relationship between Houellebecq and his captors develops, we see him demonstrate the qualities that make him such an effective novelist. Despite his well earned antisocial and reclusive reputation, Houellebecq is deeply empathic, connecting on a personal level with each of the kidnappers. One of them, a muscled-bound MMA fighter named Mathieu (played by real life MMA fighter Mathieu Nicourt), quizzes him on how he gets the material for his books. “I listen,” Houellebecq replies. “Yes – I really listen.”
Another captor, an emotionally fragile bodybuilder named Maxime (played by real life bodybuilder Maxime Lefrançois) seeks Houellebecq’s advice on everything from writing poetry to parenthood. In a climactic final scene, Houellebecq comforts a sobbing Maxime, who is overwhelmed by the pressures of aging and becoming a father. “I keep going back to the word father,” confesses Houellebecq, whose own parents abandoned him in their pursuit of a hedonistic lifestyle, “because I know it is what scares me.”
These emotional depths are deftly leavened with what can best be termed bro comedy. Houellebecq is an exasperating pain in the ass, constantly demanding more cigarettes, more wine, and better books. He argues constantly with his captors, arrogantly mocking their literary tastes and their half-baked political opinions. His captivity is clearly more of a burden for them than it is for him.
With the light touch of an action-comedy, Nicloux is able pull off something rather impressive: exploring Houellebecq’s own despair over the superficiality of modern society.