In 2011, when Michel Houellebecq failed to show up for a book tour in the Netherlands, his three-day absence fueled ridiculous rumors: Had he disappeared? Was this an act of international terrorism? In fact, Houellebecq says, he’d just sort of forgotten that he had stuff to do.
Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum, riffs on this hysteria and the cult of personality around the author, imagining a scenario in which Houellebecq—who plays, of course, himself—really is abducted: he’s ambushed in his home and taken to an undisclosed location outside Paris, where his kidnappers await a healthy ransom. But this is not the stony, philosophical world of, say, Mao II; there are no connections drawn between art and terrorism, no meditations on the dangerousness of writers as a class. That’s because there’s no danger, period. Houellebecq’s capture is a perfect non sequitur.
His eyelids at half-mast, a perennial cigarette between his fingers, Houellebecq is largely indifferent to life in captivity; you get the sense he could take it or leave it. True, he’s handcuffed, but he gets his own room and a glass of wine with lunch. You could call him downright Zen, were it not for his constant grousing: about his inner-ear aches, his access to lighters, the kinds of wine on offer (couldn’t they spring for something from Spain, which wouldn’t upset his stomach?), and about the regularity of his appointments with a young sex worker (it is his birthday, after all).
His captors, if that’s the word, are dithering men who find themselves more accommodating than they’d planned to be. But hey, this is Michel Houellebecq, renowned provocateur, bona fide éminence grise. Who are they to deny him a prostitute? As he grows closer with them, they lower the stakes of his abduction until any question of Stockholm syndrome is immaterial. He practices fighting with one of them; he promises another that he’ll write a poem about her. They know nothing of his work, save that he may have written, once, about stealing a seat cushion with traces of H. P. Lovecraft’s saliva on it.
Houellebecq is the film’s greatest asset: his chops, literal and figurative, make him a surprisingly effective comic lead. Every variety of lassitude flickers across his hangdog features. A lot of the fun of Kidnapping is in watching his face to discern exactly how comme ci, comme ça of a time he’s having. The movie amounts to a hilarious meta-vanity project: a willfully empty spectacle and a study in the kind of malformed celebrity that is a writer’s lot.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.