The week of the Charlie Hebdo murders, the satirical magazine’s cover boy was Michel Houellebecq. Although a stone-cold intellectual superstar in France (“intellectual superstar” is not an oxymoron there), Houellebecq’s accidental association with the massacre likely brought him even more notoriety, especially outside France.
And it probably didn’t hurt sales of his new novel, “Submission,” which depicts France ruled by a Sharia-law-loving Muslim president. It might even have created international interest in Houellebecq’s new movie, a hugely eccentric affair that trades on the writer’s misanthropic personality.
“The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” assumes some knowledge of the events on display, so for the record: In 2011, instead of showing up for a book tour, Houellebecq went missing for a few days. Then he popped up again, without explaining his absence.
This vanishing act led to multiple theories about what happened to the author, including the notion that he had been kidnapped. And so “The Kidnapping” uses that speculation as a jumping-off point for a curious laid-back comedy.
Houellebecq — playing himself — is seized by a trio of bulked-up kidnappers, whose reasons for holding him hostage in a pleasant country house are never revealed. In the course of a few days, Houellebecq makes a nuisance of himself by demanding cigarettes and wine, bloviating on literary subjects, and requesting a prostitute.
Despite all this, he actually gets on well with the kidnappers, enjoying a birthday party and learning the rules of mixed martial arts. Director Guillaume Nicloux shoots the film like a documentary, apparently catching some of Houellebecq’s stray critical opinions off the cuff.
Every now and then someone will mention the ransom payments, but mostly the film just meanders through a series of mildly amusing scenes. You will find them amusing, that is, if you grow to appreciate Houellebecq as a movie character.
Think Bill Murray as an art professor on tranquilizers, but trapped in a body so spindly it appears to be powered by tobacco and ego. There’s something undeniably comic about this combination of the cultivated and the infantile.
One would suggest that Houellebecq is ripe for his own reality-TV series, but the idea is superfluous. He’s been engineering the cultural equivalent for the past 20 years.
“The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” (three stars)
A curious comedy in which the French intellectual Michel Houellebecq plays himself as a kidnap victim, in a story that might have (but probably didn’t) actually happened. The author comes across as a shrimpy, tranquilized Bill Murray, and if you find him amusing, the movie will work. In French, with English subtitles.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for nudity
Showing: Grand Illusion