The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq Review

France's most controversial writer makes spirited fun of himself in Guillaume Nicloux's briskly enjoyable reality comedy.

French thriller director Guillaume Nicloux (“The Stone Council”) shows an uncharacteristically lighter side in “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq,” a slight, slyly amusing farce that could be described as a French intellectual’s equivalent of Michael Winterbottom’s “Trip” movies, by way of Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain.” Destined to be of greatest interest at home, where its subject remains a hotly debated enfant terrible (even after moving to Spain), this genuine curio gets surprising mileage from Houellebecq’s deft, self-effacing performance at the center of a lively comic ensemble. Offshore, Francophone fests and big-city arthouses seem the likeliest venues.

Nicloux, who’s also credited with the loosely structured screenplay, takes his inspiration from a real episode of Houellebecq-centric media hysteria that occurred when the celebrated, controversial author failed to show for several appearances on a 2011 book tour, prompting a series of “Where Is Michel Houellebecq?” editorials, and at least one theory that he might have been kidnapped by Al-Qaeda. (He eventually resurfaced, with no mention of foul play.) That’s enough for Nicloux to imagine that Houellebecq might indeed have been abducted, not by Arab terrorists but rather by a trio of bumbling amateurs who include bodybuilder Maxime (real bodybuilder Maxime Lefrancois) and professional MMA fighter Mathieu (real MMA fighter Mathieu Nicourt).

The pic opens with a series of leisurely scenes in which we see Houellebecq going about his daily life, reading, writing poetry, picking up groceries from an attractive black woman who seems as though she might be a current or past flame. At the same time, Nicloux introduces the eventual kidnappers, who follow the oblivious Houellebecq back to his high-rise apartment and, making no effort to disguise themselves, force him into a large metallic box (with holes drilled for ventilation) and carry him out in broad daylight.

They hole up in a small house somewhere in the deep Paris suburbs belonging to the parents of Luc (Luc Schwarz), the nominal ringleader here, though he himself is merely the emissary of some larger, unspecified criminal entity. These being French kidnappers, they offer Houellebecq cigarettes and wine, at one point even expressing concern that he drinks too much, and otherwise make him as comfortable as possible for someone who’s chained to a bed. There’s some talk of a ransom, but Nicloux remains purposefully vague on details, allowing for the speculation that anyone — maybe even Houellebecq himself — could be behind the affair.

Mostly, the film turns on the curious chemistry between Houellebecq and his captors, who insist on engaging the writer in intellectual debate, despite their obvious disadvantages in this realm, querying him about Auschwitz, the Armenian genocide, his 1991 H.P. Lovecraft biography, and the “rules” governing Alexandrine poetry. (Sensitive brute Mathieu, it turns out, is a budding poet.)

None of this would work nearly so well were Houellebecq not such a hoot playing himself — or at least a shambling, sad-sack version of himself, at once bolstering and gently skewering his self-perpetuated image of the author as misanthropic recluse. (More than one critic in Berlin likened Houellebecq’s screen persona to that of a Gallic Larry David.) In what is effectively a one-joke movie, the joke is a good one, and Nicloux (making a real rebound from his ponderous 2013 adaptation of Diderot’s “The Nun”) manages to keep the comic energy high for almost the entire 90-minute running time.

Production values are suitably scrappy, with d.p. Christophe Offenstein’s digital lensing done no favors by being blown up to CinemaScope proportions.

Berlin Film Review: 'The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 7, 2014. Running time: 92 MIN. Original title: “L’enlevement de Michel Houellebecq”

Production

(France) An Arte France presentation of a Les Films du Worso/Chic Films production with the participation of Centre National de la Cinematographie et de l’Image Animee. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.)

Crew

Directed, written by Guillaume Nicloux. Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Christophe Offenstein; editor, Guy Lecorne; costume designer, Anais Romand; sound, Olivier Do-Huu, Fanny Weinzaepflen; line producer, Laziz Belkai; assistant director, Jules Cesar Brechet.

With

Michel Houellebecq, Luc Schwarz, Mathieu Nicourt, Maxime Lefrancois, Francoise Lebrun.

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