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Tribeca Review: Genre-Bending Comedy ‘The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq’

Tribeca Review: Genre-Bending Comedy 'The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq'

In 2011, acclaimed novelist Michel Houellebecq disappeared. Given his politically conservative leanings and his often argumentative and incendiary prose, theories circulated about his life being threatened and in jeopardy. Houellebecq eventually surfaced of his own volition, but there is now a film to fill in those blanks, “The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq.” What tickles most about this diverting new movie is that it appears no one was more amused by the theories than Houellebecq himself.

Houellebecq plays himself in the film, which feels offhand, casual and fairly documentary-like. The lack of acknowledgment towards the camera is the only way we know what we are seeing is not the chit-chatty rhythms of real life. He’s not far into an average day, filled with socializing about subjects as mundane as wallpaper, when he is seized by three men who bully and corner him, slapping cuffs on the author and whisking him away to a mystery location.

As far as kidnappings go, this affair is mostly conflict-free. The three men who have seized him don’t have much planned, opting to eschew masks in favor of more practical, less-threatening terms. At one point an argument breaks out regarding the three of them deciding whether to give Houellebecq a lighter in order to smoke cigarettes while handcuffed to his bed. Most of their conversations are amusingly inarticulate, as the slack-jawed Houellebecq simply looks on, perplexed.

The early goings of ‘The Kidnapping’ are dryly funny in a way that will make the average audience member lightly chuckle, if not exactly guffaw. Houellebecq himself is a presence of peculiar charisma, his protruding lower jaw suggesting a permanent pout. Combined with his slower speaking pattern, he comes across as a miserable person to be around. The kidnappers view him as an “elite,” and to them, keeping him trapped in his room is a sign of respect, lest they bore him or face the brunt of his insults.

As the affair continues, however, guards are dropped. One kidnapper can’t help but be antagonistic as Houellebecq debates the man’s takeaway from a book Houellebecq has written. Another is so desperate for a friend that he shows him mixed martial arts, explaining the nuances to Houellebecq as the old man flinches from the violence. To them, he is a captive friend, buddy, confidante. In any other movie, the kidnapped party would utilize his resources and the trust he’s built with his captors to turn the tables and find a way out. Instead, the diminutive scribe, who is kept past his own birthday, is able to negotiate a visit from a prostitute.

Passages from “The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq” play like a French version of “The Trip.” It’s unquestionable that certain portions of this film are completely unscripted, as some of the exchanges dissolve into gibberish, particularly as Houellebecq imbibes heavily throughout the film. To him, this kidnapping is something of a vacation. Being tied to the bed at night is the only shortcoming. He gets fed, drinks a ton of liquor, experiences the company of people actually interested and concerned for his well-being, and scores free sex. When it’s hostile, the Hobbit-like Houellebecq first flinches. But soon, he gains the courage to come face to face with his captors when they have debates, as their respect towards him has turned towards mutual appreciation.

Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux has made a punchy, unique picture, one that ultimately leans towards life-affirming as it evolves. Houellebecq is a mischievous imp throughout the proceedings, knowing he can talk circles around his kidnappers. The joke of the film is that no one will be in a rush to pay the ransom money. Houellebecq is in no rush, either. The kidnappers think they’re punishing a jet-setting author by surrendering him to a mundane existence in the middle of nowhere, but he relishes every new luxury he can attain while kicking his feet up and enjoying the spoils. Nicloux never trivializes the threat Houellebecq faces, but he complicates the very nature of such a relationship between captor and captive, resulting in a slight but funny character piece that keeps locating new places to find laughs, and new ideas about the nature of captivity. [B+]

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