Saturday, November 14, 2015


Michel Houellebecq may be the most controversial novelist in France today, and perhaps the most popular French novelist abroad right now. There was a cartoon of Houellebecq -- whom Guillaume Nicloux's film proves to be a kind of cartoon in the flesh -- on the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine the week its editorial staff was massacred by terrorists last January. Houellebecq -- I guess you pronounce it something like "Ool-beck" -- had just published his latest novel, Soumission. Translated into English as Submission this fall, the novel tells of the largely peaceful Islamization of France. Some time before, the author had been prosecuted for calling Islam the stupidest of religions. Given this context, the surprising thing about The Kidnapping, released nearly a year before the massacre, is that Islam factors into the story not at all.

I've read three of Houellebecq's novels and look forward to reading Submission. Judging from the novels, you might imagine the novelist to be some intense degenerate. Many of the novels are pornographically satirical, the blatancy of the sex being part of Houellebecq's argument against the increasing commodification and increased competitiveness of every aspect of life. The advance word on Submission suggests that it's a summation of some of his career themes, especially a presumed mass yearning for a guaranteed place in the world, a refuge from competition, that Islam, among other forces, promises to fulfill. I'm actually not surprised to see Houellebecq, as imagined with his obvious cooperation by writer-director Nicloux, as an R. Crumb sort of figure, an awkward schlub seething on the inside, and on top of that a mushmouthed mumbler whom everyone asks to repeat himself. I've never seen Houellebecq give a genuine interview so I can't say to what extent he caricatures himself here, but I think, based on my incomplete knowledge of his work, that Nicloux does a good job making the author into something like a character from one of his own novels.

That doll is a perfect symbol of the banality of this particular evil

After some purposefully boring scenes of the author at home discussing redecorating, among other matters, Nicloux gets to work getting Houellebecq kidnapped. The kidnappers are a gang of three: a fat guy, a mixed martial artist and the other guy. One of them is a Roma who used to live in Israel. They're all quite aware of his celebrity; they expect a big ransom, after all, even though Houellebecq is hard-pressed to imagine who'd pay for him. One of them read his non-fiction book about H. P. Lovecraft and almost gets into a fight with him when Houellebecq denies writing that he'd purchased a pillow that had belonged to Lovecraft and had traces of his saliva. Another asks the sometime poet about poetry, and one reads him a poem he'd won an award for in school days. The fighter is eager to teach Houellebecq about MMA and the author is interested enough to learn some moves. In one of the funniest scenes he practices with the fat guy and nearly chokes him out for real despite his victim's urgent tapping out, the meaning of which Houellebecq doesn't understand at first.



Houellebecq is stashed in the home of one of the gang's parents, and the banality of his guest-room prison is a joke in its own right. The novelist soon proves himself a needy character, though the kidnappers have themselves to blame because they won't let him keep a lighter. They learn not to let him drink too much; we get hints that Houellebecq can be a mean drunk. This extended criminal family really treats their captive pretty well, even providing him with a prostitue, whom he immediately falls for. Apart from not having the lighter whenever he wants it, Houellebecq really seems to enjoy the experience, to the extent that he can enjoy anything. He gets to observe a bunch of interesting new people and, as noted, he gets waited on hand and foot. The Kidnapping becomes a kind of self-satire if you get that this relatively-comfortable captivity is the sort of submission -- some might see it as a renunciation of responsibility -- that Houellebecq's characters so often seem to long for. The punch line comes after the ransom is paid -- by an attorney representing someone he refuses to identify, though Houellebecq seems to recognize him as lawyer for suspected terrorists -- when our hero, having noticed that the family has a Polish handyman living in a storage container in their yard, notices a second container and proposes moving in. But that isn't even the final punch line. The last one is more enigmatic. After blindfolding Houellebecq and driving him out on the highway, the fat kidnapper gives him his car as his "cut" for being such a cooperative hostage. Houellebecq promptly takes him for a ride, quickly pushing the speedometer to over 250 km per hour as the erstwhile kidnapper starts to sweat. The film ends here, allowing us to wonder whether this is just a little revenge on Houellebecq's part or a hint that the novelist all along has been a more dangerous character than his captors.

It's hard to recommend The Kidnapping to general audiences despite my enjoyment of it because your enjoyment depends unavoidably on how much you know about Michel Houellebecq. So let me recommend some novels by the man, particularly The Elementary Particles and Platform. Those two should give you a sufficient idea of the man to appreciate the joke he and Nicloux are playing on himself and us.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Saw this at the Tribeca Film Festival back in April. I was hoping for something great based on some advance notices, but I found this a numbing bore. I see you have acknowledged this aspect during the course of your (excellent) review, but more in a charge against some of the set up films. Probably the most disappointing film at the festival for me.