One of the happy surprises of the 2014 Berlinale was “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq.” Guillaume Nicloux’ 90-minute film is a faux documentary inspired by the real-life and still-unexplained disappearance of the celebrated and reclusive French author, who didn’t show up for part of a 2011 book tour, leading to a media frenzy and even to worries of an Al-Qaeda plot, and then returned days later, lips sealed. Nicloux’ genius is to fill in the blanks, and he does so hilariously.
It helps, of course, to know at least a bit about Houellebecq, who is as ornery and controversial as he is talented. In novels like “Platform” (2002) and “The Elementary Particles” (2000), he has openly criticized Islam and free economic markets, which he feels create winners and losers in love as well as life. Many critics consider him to be sexist, misogynist, racist, not to mention pornographic and generally repugnant. He is certainly an eccentric, drinking and smoking to excess, and he appears worn well beyond his 57 years.
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In the film, three working-class men accost the author and take him to a remote house, where he is treated and fed well; he even becomes friendly with his kidnappers as well as one man’s parents, in whose house they are staying. Over several days, there are discussions and arguments, body-building and cage-fighting lessons, drunken parties, poetry readings, even arranged sex with a young woman from the village. He wages an absurd battle to get back his precious Bic lighter from one of his minders, who turns out to be a Gypsy. “You’re a Gypsy?” says Houellebecq. “No wonder you annoy me so much.”
Nothing happens and everything happens — and never an explanation of his kidnapping.
Meanwhile, Houellebecq gets to sound off on the topics of his choice, which may be why he agreed to make the film. What’s brilliant about it is even when you know in the back of your mind that you’re watching a fiction, you never for a moment feel it’s anything but an entirely plausible and enjoyable documentary. I’m still not absolutely certain.