The controversial French author Michel Houellebecq is kidnapped by three amateurs and held hostage in one of their homes. 

 

3.5
A cheeky inside look at the mind of a loudmouth.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The internationally famous French novelist and poet Michel Houellebecq is also a renowned provocateur. He’s controversial, not only because his books – like the 1998 nihilistic classic Atomised – are filled with repulsive characters, vulgar sex and outrageous politics, but also because he’s fond of making offensive public statements. The greatest of these was his declaration that “Islam is the stupidest of all religions” – an outburst which saw Houellebecq sued for (and later acquitted of) hate speech in 2002.

You need to know this because the joke at the heart of the hilarious but understated faux documentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, is that the 55-year-old writer is almost a nice guy. Grumpy, yes. Opinionated, certainly. He’s unattractive and a bit gross, but not a monster. Perhaps the film is the best public relations stunt ever invented by Houellebecq, who plays a fictionalised version of himself. Written and directed by Guillaume Nicloux (The Nun), the story is a riff on the fact that Houellebecq disappeared from a book tour in 2011, causing media speculation that he’d been captured by terrorists.

We’re first introduced to Houellebecq as he goes about a normal day in Paris. Constantly smoking, with his lower jaw set in a permanent scowl, he’s a scruffy old man with bleary eyes but a sharp tongue. He discusses kitchen renovations with his architect, managing to insult both Scandinavian design and Le Corbusier architecture in the process. He goes for a walk, collects some vegetables and visits an old friend, where he criticises her piano playing and declares Mozart overrated.

Returning to his apartment, Houellebecq is cornered in the elevator by three thugs (non actors Maxime Lefrançois, Françoise Lebrun and Luc Schwartz). They shove him in a coffin-sized box with breathing holes and transport him several hours away to what is obviously a modest family home in the middle of a junkyard. There, Houellebecq is kept in a girly bedroom. (At one stage he kicks a life-sized doll.) He’s chained to the bed at night, but increasingly treated like an honoured guest and part of the family. He’s allowed to smoke and drink red wine. (To be honest, he appears a little sloshed throughout the film.) He’s given novels to read, a prostitute when he asks for it, and the doctor comes to visit when he’s not feeling well.

Houellebecq complains constantly: about the nature of democracy and the state of Europe (“I’m against it,” he says); about his earache and the fact that nobody will give him back his cigarette lighter. “You complain a lot, Michel,” says one of his captors, to which he replies mildly, “One has to say things.” Yet there’s a sense in which he’s enjoying the holiday from real life and the chance engage with working class characters.

The three thugs – a bodybuilder, a martial arts free-fighter and an ex-Israeli soldier (who has worked a security guard for Karl Lagerfeld) – turn out to be gentle souls who enjoy a discussion about books and writing. They teach their prisoner to punch and jab and hook, while he gives them insight into the creative process. Meanwhile, nobody seems to know who’s behind the kidnapping, or where the ransom is supposed to come from. One thing they’re all sure of: it won’t be from President François Hollande.

Shot in unobtrusive documentary style (the camera is never addressed), this film is often very funny, though there are moments where it drags and scenes which don’t totally work. But as a sly self-referential joke on literary fame, it’s certainly unique.

Details

1 hour 33 min

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