MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ (Reunion, 1958) is a controversial author – loved and loathed. He is compared to Marquis de Sade and Baudelaire for his provocations.

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

Others say he only tells us what we do not really want to know: what the world and humanity are really like, and where they are going.

He has met the lesser sides of life: disinterest from his divorced parents, unemployment, failed marriage, depression and therapy. Trained as an agronomical engineer, he worked as a civil servant and co-founded the literary journal Perpendiculaire before turning to poetry and literature for good. His debut was an essay, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991). But it was his first two novels, Whatever (1994) and Atomised/ The Elementary Particles (1998) that made him the star he is today, though especially the latter was both praised and criticised. After having had to deal with a racism lawsuit concerning his book Platforme (2001), for which he was acquitted, he swapped Paris for Ireland and later Spain.

DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY – REINIER VAN BRUMMELEN

Houellebecq’s book The Possibility of an Island was published in 2005 and tells the story of a man and his two clones, all named Daniel. Number 1, the real one, is a contemporary comedian fed up with his wealthy hedonist life. The other Daniels, numbered 24 and 25, live somewhere in the future, in a world destroyed by man itself, by war and disaster. So Daniel has post-human eternal life, but what does that really implicate?

Houellebecq’s own feature film adaptation of the book focuses on the lost love of the post-human clones, and the possibility to regain it. A dog seems to be the catalyst. Or, as Iggy Pop says: “Through dogs we pay homage to love and to its possibility.” A poster with Iggy Pop used to decorate the wall in Houellebecq’s room in Paris, and Iggy agreed to write the music for the documentary. The seven new songs were released on the album, Prélminaires. The music suits the documentary. It all seems to come together. And yet, the film is somewhat intangible too. It has many distinct elements that are not subservient to a single storyline.

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The novelist Michel Houellebecq in 2010. Photo: Alessando Albert/Getty Images

THE DOCUMENTARY ABOUT Houellebecq starts with an image of him shot from behind, in a hooded sweater. Even when he turns to us, the lack of light does not allow us to properly look him in the face. In other images, Houellebecq is captured wandering around on set, at work as director. We see him lingering while others seem to be preparing to film. He comes across as someone who decides as he goes along, who does not always know what he wants. He disagrees and corrects. At times, the documentary seems to be more about what Houellebecq is incapable of than of what he is capable of. There are conversations in a car, cruising through either a non-descript landscape at sunset or a cityscape by night. The filmmakers added images in which Houellebecq is depicted alone in an empty dark landscape. It strengthens the image of Houellebecq as a singular, solitary person, distant, cut off from his surroundings – whereas the straightforward interview scenes seem somewhat out of place.

The coastal scenes are beautifully shot, despite – or maybe thanks to – the post-apocalyptic landscape. The overall atmosphere is dark, raw, chilly at times. Like Iggy’s voice. The sea is a clear blue, the waves and clouds are bright white, both against dark volcanic rock.

Houellebecq refers to the adaptation of a previous novel to explain why he wanted to make this novel into a film himself: he decided to get involved in the filming of Extension du domaine de la lutte (literal translation: Broadening the Field of Struggle) because of the scenery, the locations, because he knew what they were like. So he wrote the screenplay – and concluded afterwards that it was an excellent adaptation.

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Erik Lieshout

DIRECTOR LIESHOUT explains that he wanted to make a documentary about Houellebecq because the novels had brought his love for literature back, “like a literary rebirth”. He and his colleagues had filmed Houellebecq previously, for a television arts programme. They admire him, and making a film was an easy way to get close to him. But Houellebecq is not very talkative. Some call him monosyllabic. How do you make a film about someone who keeps a distance to the world? They obviously have not tried to let him explain himself. Instead, they show him, converse with him and comment on him. The images, the music, this strange guy, the overall atmosphere, they are all part of a remarkable documentary.

Lieshout, Hagers and Van Brummelen roughly used to be director, sound recorder/editor and photographer respectively. Now they consider themselves a team, whose members all contribute their expertise to a collaborative effort. And it seems to pay off. They have decided to stay with Houellebecq for a while longer: Their next project is an adaptation of Houellebecq’s Rester vivant (literal translation: Staying Alive, 1991). Houellebecq himself has been less successful, we know now, as film director. The Possibility of an Island was a flop. Houellebecq may be better off sticking to writing.

Last Words follows French author Michel Houellebecq on and off the set of the feature film The Possibility of an Island, the adaptation of his own novel by the same title, which he is directing himself. The story is about a future in which eternal life is possible for descendants of human beings. It is a reflection on modern day liberal western society. The film mainly deals with another Houellebecq theme: lost love, good-byes and the space after the end. The set scenes in futuristic post-apocalyptic landscapes are combined with actors and crew of the feature film talking about Houellebecq, love and eternal life – and conversations with Houellebecq himself. The film also includes quotations of Houellebecq texts and images of a solitary Houellebecq. All these elements work to reflect on an author who has always seemed to be intangible.


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