Michel Houellebecq is France’s most famous contemporary writer, owing in no small part to controversy that he either stirs up or can’t escape from. In 2002, he was tried for (and eventually acquitted of) “inciting racial hatred” for calling Islam “the dumbest religion” during an interview to promote his 2001 novel, Platform. His latest book, Submission, a satiric portrayal of France under Shariah law in 2022, was published in that country on January 7 — the same day of the slaughter at the office of Charlie Hebdo, which had featured a cartoon of the author on that week’s cover. In Guillaume Nicloux’s droll, loose docu-concoction The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, the writer plays a version of himself: less the world-renowned provocateur than a disheveled, frail, yet curious middle-aged man who barely seems capable of dressing or grooming himself. Or as the novelist himself says of his fictional counterpart in his 2010 novel, The Map and the Territory: “[H]e looked like a sick old turtle.”
Shot in the spring of 2013, Nicloux’s film takes off from a real-life incident. After Houellebecq failed to show up for several scheduled appearances on a 2011 book tour, some media outlets began to wonder whether he’d been abducted, perhaps even by Al Qaeda; the hysterical speculation was put to rest when the writer resurfaced a few days later. Nicloux has great fun with the conceit, imagining that Houellebecq was snatched not by terrorists but by three incompetent criminals. The trio, led by a corpulent, extravagantly mulleted former bodyguard named Luc (Luc Schwarz), also includes bodybuilder Max (Maxime Lefrançois) and professional mixed-martial-arts fighter Mathieu (Mathieu Nicourt). Like Houellebecq, the performers playing the kidnappers, all of whom have acted in film or TV before (each had a bit part in Nicloux’s 2006 crime thriller, The Key), appear to be good-naturedly riffing on their actual selves; Nicourt, for example, really is an MMA grappler. Crucially, all four men, plus the ancillary characters who appear throughout the film, prove to be excellent company, holding forth on literature, Europe’s future, inner-ear ailments, and side triceps.
Kidnapping isn’t the first metafiction to imagine the notorious writer as the victim of a crime; in The Map and the Territory, the character who shares Houellebecq’s name is savagely murdered. The author is treated much more gently here, enduring no cruelty worse than being stuffed into a ventilated metal box right outside his Paris high-rise apartment by Luc and his boys, who drive their quarry to the home of Mathieu’s parents, an hour outside the French capital. Though Houellebecq must put up with a few indignities and inconveniences — sometimes manacled, the chain-smoker is denied access to a lighter — his captors turn out to be exceptionally admiring and convivial hosts, plying their involuntary guest with wine and elaborate meals (and the occasional prostitute).
During the week or so that Houellebecq spends in captivity — “It seems you have no plan,” he remarks to Luc and his henchmen before fretting, “I’m a celebrity, yes, but who will pay to free me?” — he’s frequently asked earnest questions about his métier. Max, seen earlier in the film reciting lines by Alfred de Musset, wonders what kind of “literary guidelines” his hostage must follow; Luc is particularly eager to parse Houellebecq’s book on H.P. Lovecraft with the author. These tête-à-têtes — lively, illuminating, and never condescending exchanges between class-discordant individuals — suggest a reverse case of Stockholm syndrome, in which Luc and his crew grow even fonder of their esteemed hostage.
The flow of information, however, is not one-way: The physically fragile writer learns the finer points of cross-punching and Krav Maga, tussling on the floor with his butch captors. (Houellebecq’s increasingly pitiful appearance and comportment in Nicloux’s film nearly match this barbed description of the “Michel Houellebecq” character in The Map and the Territory: “[He] was wearing gray-striped pajamas that made him vaguely resemble a prisoner in a television series; his hair was ruffled and dirty; his face red, almost with broken veins, and he stank a little.”) But when the writer does have an outburst, a sole eruption that occurs during an especially bibulous dinner, his words complicate his seemingly boundless equanimity: “When it comes to literature, shut your mouth. I never said I was tolerant.”
The Houellebecq we see on screen is obviously rooted as much in fiction as in fact, yet what makes his performance so fascinating is the mischievous glee he takes in sending up his own persona. Equally self-regarding and self-reproaching, Houellebecq seems most convincing in this hall-of-mirrors production when he casually drops the kind of outrageous suggestion that made his reputation in the first place. “I want there to be an insurrection — Brussels is a good place to start a civil war,” he says in between drags off a cigarette. He’ll have at least three lieutenants at the front lines.