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What Houellebecq smokes would not normally be of huge interest, except he spends the whole of this new film either puffing on a cigarette, trying to light one, or whining to his captors to give him a lighter. When we finally talk, it turns out that Houellebecq is neither trying to quit, nor is he overly worried about lung cancer or emphysema. It's just that the sprinklers in the building are triggered by cigarette smoke. If he lit up for real, we'd all get drenched.
So let's be thankful for small mercies: the opportunity to hear what Houellebecq has to say isn't one to pass up. Maybe he'll extol the virtues of high-class prostitutes, or be horrible about Arabs, or say how much he hates hippies. It wouldn't be the first time. Since the publication of his first novel, 1994's Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (aka Whatever), Houellebecq has been the posterboy for literary provocation, his books and his interviews apparently part of a complicated revenge strategy on a world that has ignored and oppressed him and his kind: the ugly, the boring, the ineffectual. These days, of course, Houellebecq is a literary titan, his name significant enough to anchor an entire film title all on its own.
"If I'm being honest," says Houellebecq, "I thought making the film would be interesting because it was a new experience. That might be a very selfish reason, but it was the main one. And I have not been disappointed." This is not too surprising: rarely has a film given itself over so completely to allowing its subject (and its real-life subject at that) to define and embody every detail. To some, it will be received as a cinematic oddity, a vanity project; to others, a postmodern metafiction of the most high-minded kind. All this from an attempt to fill in the details of a missing few days in Houellebecq's life in 2011, when he failed to turn up for a
The disappearance lasted only three days, and Houellebecq afterwards claimed he'd simply forgotten about the tour. But the ensuing media tizzy, with some even claiming it was the work of international terrorists, sparked an idea in the mind of
The relationship the pair struck up produced enough momentum for this second collaboration. In The Kidnapping, Houellebecq's busy schedule of smoking, complaining and street-wandering is rudely interrupted by three heavies, who stuff him into a large tin box and take him home to their parents' house, where he is forced to sleep in a bedroom clearly occupied until recently by a small girl. It becomes clear that things have not been thought through all that thoroughly when they have difficulty finding anyone to pay a ransom. So the heavies are - briefly - stuck with him.
Dryly funny, introspective and unashamedly admiring of its lead, the film manages something that many would have assumed impossible: it shows Houellebecq to be quite nice - in stark contrast to his scratchy, irritating public persona. Except for the bit where he readily has paid-for sex with a penniless local girl (named, with a very Houellebecqesque ethnic charge, Fatima).
The writer also seems to have been comfortable with the strange non-acting nature of the acting job required from him. "It's true, I often totally forgot we were being filmed," he says. "There was one scene, for example, where I discussed the nature of writing with one of the kidnappers, who was also a martial-arts free fighter. We were both in front of the camera and we were both totally sincere. I was genuinely surprised when he told me he was a fighter. And he was surprised I wrote novels."
Nicloux adds: "For me, the essential thing is that all the people in the film are themselves: not just
All of which is a rather fancy way of saying that Nicloux made the whole thing up: the kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq didn't happen. No
There is one scene that turns out to have been his idea, though - one in which he drives like a maniac. "I mentioned to Guillaume I'd like to drive at 300 kilometres per hour. He wrote that down, and I thought, 'Shit, I regret that.' But in the end I got up to 280, which is quite close. It would have been safer if I'd said I'd like to try LSD."
It soon becomes apparent that Houellebecq isn't really interested in talking about the film at all. That's Nicloux's job. Houellebecq - spindly, unkempt and defiantly uninterested in his personal appearance - restricts himself to gnomic utterances and sly drags on his e-cigarette. He smiles coyly as Nicloux somehow finds yet more to say about his search for onscreen authenticity: how he found one actor after his casting director visited a prison; what fellow director
Houellebecq does, however, become animated when we discuss the film's relationship to his literary work. Suddenly he uncoils and becomes attentive. His last novel, The Map and the Territory, featured the savage murder of a character called, yes, Michel Houellebecq. Is it too much of a stretch to suppose he is embarking on an extended bout of self-reference? He launches into something close to a monologue: "Hmmm. I don't think it's so much that. It's more that when I am trying to write, when I find a character, then I feel I'm OK. The themes I develop in The Map and the Territory are about culture in relation to art, the possibility of expressing through art, especially writing. It doesn't happen very often that a writer chooses himself as a main character. It is neither more difficult nor easier. It's just one of the resources you have available to you."
The odd thing is that Houellebecq actually seems very concerned with cinema: inferences and hints suggest it would have been his preferred medium. He has a couple of writing and directing credits for short films made in the late 70s and early 80s, when he was an agronomy student in
Later, after becoming a bona fide celebrity, Houellebecq got to direct his own feature, an adaptation of his own 2005 sci-fi novel The Possibility of an Island. It got panned. Tragically, it never made it to the
In the end, Houellebecq says he will soldier on, not even distracted by the ongoing frenzy surround Francois Hollande's love life. "I try to delete his existence from my mind as much as possible." Isn't he interested? "I try not to watch TV or read the news. It's tough. I try to write novels instead."
The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq will be out later this year.
'I often forgot we were being filmed' . . . Houellebecq in the new kidnapping film; (below right) the author
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