In some sense, all of anarchic French duo Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern’s films are road movies: In “Aaltra,” “Louise-Michel,” “Mammuth” and “Le Grand Soir,” misfit characters split with society, veer off into the wilderness and wreak black-comedy havoc. “Near Death Experience” is their darkest and least commercial film yet, though also their most serious and soulful, featuring controversial French literary rebel Michel Houellebecq as a telecom-company wage slave who picks Friday the 13th as the day to end his own life, then spends three nights wandering alone near his home before deciding whether to go through with the deed.
Like Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” without the pyrotechnics, the pair have crafted a a stark, off-the-grid disavowal of the hollowness of modern society, though their approach seems more resigned than radical. Audiences aren’t exactly clamoring for films about suicide, and to complicate matters further, “Near Death Experience” has the curious fortune of arriving less than a month after Robin Williams took his own life.
In order to shoot such a disquieting project on their own terms, the helmers scaled their production team down to seven people (and could have worked with six, if not for the directorial partnership), taking a lightweight, lowish-res digital camera out to the cliffs of Provence to shoot. It’s a gorgeous backdrop for such a grim subject, though the beauty doesn’t always come through on the bigscreen, where the eye strains to make out the environmental details.
That’s frustrating, to be sure, though Delepine and Kervern have always celebrated a different kind of beauty with their films, accentuating the odd physical characteristics of weird-looking actors (capturing the most grotesque side of Gerard Depardieu in “Mammuth,” for example, or androgynizing the two leads in “Louise-Michel”). The same reason others never thought to use Houellebecq — that he has a face for radio and a voice for the page — is precisely the reason they cast him here, gazing affectionately on his scarecrow-like body in his ridiculous-looking orange bike suit. But the greater reason is that “Near Death Experience” is actually a philosophical work — practically a poem, with its sparse introspective narration — packaged as a film, and who better to represent the modern everyman than the button-pushing author whose cynical worldview they share?
Projected on the Venice Film Festival’s biggest screen, the film challenged much of the audience. Shots that run well past their natural length (by quick-cut 2014 standards, at least) as Houellebecq’s character, Paul, ambles along dirt paths, rambles madly at rock piles and stands on the unsafe side of protective cliff railings. This is no spiritual search, the way last year’s outback-crossing “Tracks” intends to be (tedious in a different, more predictable and less intentional sense). Paul has given up, he just can’t quite bring himself to commit the physical act of flinging himself to his death, interrupted by unattended children or oblivious hikers at the moment of action.
And so he wanders, waiting for the right moment. Mentally, he is already dead — not brain-dead, but soul-dead. He has decided to end it. The deed may as well be done. And now he walks as though invisible through the brush, justifying his decision, saying his goodbyes and inviting us to share in his pessimistic funk. At one point, he reprimands himself, “You talk too much and don’t commit suicide enough.”
Paul prides himself in his work ethic. As a child, he always cleaned his plate. He’s not about to half-ass his suicide. Still, as he evades the inevitable, some start to squirm. Others fume. One audience member ranted for a good 15 minutes afterwards about how unfair it is that “a film like this” can get financed when so many others struggle to get made, as if movies like Toronto-bound, body-count-escalating “The Equalizer” are somehow a better fit for festivals. Festivals exist to give challenging pics like “Near Death Experience” a platform, and it should be noted that many were electrified by the audacity of “Near Death Experience” — this almost accidentally beautiful anomaly in a medium that all but refuses to acknowledge, much less depict boredom, ennui, apathy and exhaustion as facts of life.