A lucid, well-observed but exasperating ode to the tedium and loneliness of modern life, “Whatever” makes its point admirably but endlessly over the space of two hours. Two otherwise friendless Parisians travel to various cities to instruct office workers in computer software, and their inability to connect with women dooms them to a dreary, unfulfilling routine — and worse. Despite being well made and well acted, pic is another in the mini-epidemic of French films showing a flagrant disregard for the average viewer’s attention span. Local reception may be kind due to the popularity of the source material, but pic boils down to a two-character version of the same territory Todd Solondz covered far more engagingly in “Happiness.”
Movie is based on the first novel (known in English as “Whatever”) by Michel Houellebecq, one of the most talked about and bestselling authors in recent French publishing. It delineates the existential angst of a character referred to only as “Our Hero,” played to morose perfection by helmer and co-scripter Philippe Harel (“La femme defendue”). Onscreen, Harel holds his cigarette exactly the same way Houellebecq does — something that has sent ripples of delight through local observers.
Our Hero is a computer programmer, lives alone, earns a better-than-average salary, hasn’t had sex in two years and has no friends. As his ongoing internal monologue informs us, he knows he’s supposed to be a good consumer and participate in meaningful human exchanges, but he no longer sees the point. He’s perfectly aware of what society expects of him, but feels only lethargy at the prospect.
Ornery and detached, Our Hero is teamed with Raphael Tisserand (Jose Garcia) to run training seminars in Rouen and La Rochelle. Polite and outgoing, hopeful and sincere, but with no taste in clothes, Raphael is still a virgin at 28. Neither man has a source of love or affection in his life — or any prospects for same. Although Our Hero doesn’t say much out loud, he pontificates in his head. When he does finally give a speech to Raphael, it’s devastating.
Pic’s central conceit is that there’s a law of supply and demand not only in economics but in sexual currency. Some people obtain all the money they need, while others live in poverty. Some people have sex every day, while others experience sex “only a handful of times or never.” Alienation and social isolation among the financially secure is a worthy topic for contemporary lit, but makes for less than riveting cinema, despite Harel’s conscientious efforts.
What is interesting about pic’s structure — the story’s told via a judicious mix of omniscient narrator and internal monologue — eventually wears out its welcome, leaving only a succession of repetitive tableaux that picks up slightly at the 90-minute mark and again just before the end.
As a walking advertisement for social gangrene, Our Hero deserves to be put in a time capsule marked “late 20th-century malaise.” Bursts of mordant comedy and Garcia’s painfully earnest and needy demeanor provide occasional sparks. But mostly one yearns to amplify E.M. Forster’s advice at the screen: “Only connect, already!”