In 2011, newspapers speculated that the infamous French novelist Michel Houellebecq had been kidnapped when the media was unable to track him down for several weeks. This happened while he was promoting his new book, The Map and the Territory, which includes a grizzly depiction of the fictional murder of Houellebecq himself. When the real Houellebecq eventually reappeared, one account claimed that he had simply been experiencing problems with his Internet connection. The writer has refused to discuss the disappearance, endowing the event with an aura of mystery and ambiguity perfectly in line with his morally ambivalent fiction, which addresses politically sensitive issues in contemporary France with the same ironic distance and satirical guile evinced by his derisive reaction to the media commotion surrounding his alleged kidnapping.
The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is a fictional retelling of those weeks of media silence. Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux gives the film’s opening minutes a seamless documentary aesthetic, aided immensely by Houellebecq’s self-assured performance in the title role and some perfectly placed throwaway scenes. At one point, Houellebecq stops a taxi and then immediately turns the driver away, muttering that he had forgotten something and would rather take the metro. A woman appearing to be his ex-wife or lover shows up and offers to keep him company, only to be politely refused and never heard from again. Even though the film takes on a more overtly fictive aesthetic after he’s kidnapped, Houellebecq’s understated presence lends the proceedings a factual quality throughout.
His kidnappers turn out to be a surprisingly polite and thoughtful group of proletarian hoods, utterly lacking in menace toward their victim, constantly asking after his health and comfort in what they regretfully acknowledge are trying circumstances for the writer. One of them is shown expounding the subtlety of Houellebecq’s work to a colleague before breaking into the writer’s apartment to kidnap him, while another recites Houellebecq’s poetry with genuine emotion in his captive’s presence. Houellebecq himself makes for a droll victim, sincerely praising his host’s cooking while passionately defending his literary views against those of his less erudite kidnappers. To celebrate his impending release, his captors throw him a masquerade party, which quickly devolves into a literary argument that’s only quelled by the amiable intervention of the one the kidnappers’ elderly parents.
Houellebecq clearly has a deep-seated masochistic interest in the perpetration of violence against his fictional avatars. Perhaps this imaginary self-castigation from the bête noire of French letters is his irreverent response to his many critics, who angrily accuse him of being a reactionary opponent of European progressivism. Yet the film reveals him to be more of a melancholy moderate, whose satire is a genuine expression of his disappointment with the failures of progressive politics and frustration with the rise of technocracy on the continent. Though not explicitly mentioned in the film, what his critics have called his Islamophobia (in his clinical depiction of Islamist terrorism) is explained as simply his uncompromising opposition to violence in all of its forms. In the film, the primary cause of the writer’s disdain for contemporary Europe are its technocratic overseers, especially the EU bureaucrats in Brussels, whom he regards as the greatest enemies of continental democracy, whose purest embodiment for Houellebecq lies in genuinely popular referendums.
Physically unimposing and outwardly fragile, Houellebecq is depicted in the film as a man liberated from the castrating effects of communal pressure by his complete indifference to his social status and continued existence. Both his comic and intellectual appeal stem from his resulting imperturbability as a man seemingly incapable of hypocrisy in either thought or deed. Houellebecq gleefully spoofs and confirms his public persona as a reclusive misanthrope, coming off as a kind of low-key Larry David, more saddened than irritated by what he sees. He prefers funerals over weddings, and criticizes Mozart (overrated) and Corbusier (totalitarian) while praising Ballard and Lovecraft. Like all great satirists, Houellebecq’s hyperbolic positions force the audience to reexamine ideas they would otherwise take for granted, causing them to confront their own biases in the process.