Very French, But Odd

Michel Houellebecq, who is certainly an oddball but widely regarded as France’s most prominent writer, has surfaced in a new role.

Having published his last novel four years ago it transpires that he has not been idle. His unpredictability seems to go beyond being consistently engaged in scandalising his countrymen in print. L’enfant terrible of French letters has for the moment changed gear and is now amusing the nation as an unlikely film star.

As France, in line with other European countries, is busy revelling in its post-summer publishing season, Houellebecq has grabbed the limelight, but not with another novel dissecting the modern malaise. Instead, he is the star of two films in which he plays himself.

However, there is no glamour there. The drab and frail-looking Houellebecq is not a pretty sight: a chain-smoking and wine-swilling depressive whose status as a cultural icon has been overlooked and tarnished by allegations of sexual obsessions, misogyny and Islamophobia. Anybody else would not have survived such characterisation.

But contrary to expectation he’s being hailed as a comic genius for his lead role in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, a quirky film that was shown on television last week. The anorak-wearing author appeared in chains and with duck tape over his mouth after being seized by three men who hold him hostage in a bungalow in rural France.He asks for cigarettes, wine and sex with a prostitute, which his readers will recognise as standard preoccupations in his literary endeavours, and ends up turning this unlikely situation to his advantage when everyone – including the bungalow owners who are the parents of one of his kidnappers – befriends him.

Drink-fuelled conversations around the dining table cover philosophy, sofas and sodomy – subjects which he’s highly qualified in and perhaps without an equal. In one scene, Houellebecq, aged fifty-six, tries out wrestling moves with his kidnappers’ in another he makes love to Fatima, the local prostitute, who ends up moving in – and ‘it’s to help to relax him’, says the mother of one of the kidnappers.

Most of Houellebecq’s lines, delivered in his characteristic deadpan style, are improvised, say the filmmakers. ‘It’s unexpected and irresistible,’ wrote Le Point magazine. ‘Houellebecq is an incredible comic talent.’

Guillaume Nicloux, the director, said he had been inspired by speculation a few years ago that the author had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists as punishment for describing Islam as ‘the stupidest religion’ in an interview. The rumour began when Houellebecq went through a reclusive phase and appeared to have gone missing. ‘I had fun imagining what might have happened during his absence,’ said Nicloux.

Houellebecq had been accused of spreading racial hatred in 2002 with his comments about Islam. After being acquitted, he moved to Ireland where he lived for several years with his corgi. Regarded as a nihilist, he is also hailed as the most eloquent spokesman for a frivolous celebrity-obsessed age. His works, Atomised (1998), Platform (2002) and The Possibility of an Island (2006), featured wife-swapping, Thai-sex tourism and an alien-worshipping sect.

His last novel, The Map and the Territory, published in 2010, was a satire on the modern art world and won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. He appears as one of the characters; a stinking alcoholic with a skin disease and a penchant for eating mortadella in bed.

Near-Death Experience, another film in which the writer stars as himself, is getting rave reviews before it opens in cinemas next month. In it, he heads off to the mountains of Provence to escape his boring routine and has a near-death experience after seeing a life-changing news story on television. ‘The camera is fixed on him,’ wrote Le Nouvel Observateur magazine. ‘Like in one of those animal documentaries where they follow some poor creature wandering about aimlessly.’

In the film about his fictional kidnapping, when Houellebecq has been told he is to be freed, he thanks his hosts for ‘an agreeable captivity’. After it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival this year he said real life was no more interesting than being held hostage. He added, ‘It’s quite an embarrassing conclusion.’

Well, he might be a genius as a man of letters. A comic who might enthral the nation, a nihilist who believes in some weird philosophical concept of life, a man of multiple talents, depraved, and yet, perhaps as a screwball entertainer he provides an antidote for boredom. That in my view would constitute an important part of his legacy.

If nothing else, what a crazy son of a bitch he turns out to be! The princes of hell must surely love him, for they have much in common.

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