Dir/scr: Guillaume Nicloux. France 2013. 92mins

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq 1

No stranger to mystificatory game-playing, France’s most controversial novelist will get them stroking their chins on the Left Bank - and with luck, far beyond that - with his starring self-portrait in The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq (L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq), a wry, relaxed, extremely entertaining footnote to recent Gallic literary gossip. Houellebecq gamely plays himself (or a fictional version thereof) in a film inspired by the novelist’s still unexplained real-life disappearance in 2010; this comedy imagines what might have happened over those few days.

Whether he’s actually being himself to any real extent, or sending himself up outright, Houellebecq makes game and surprisingly likeable play on his image as a shriveled equal-opportunities hater.

The no-frills low-budgeter from versatile writer-director Guillaume Nicloux - whose CV ranges from mainstream hit La Poulpe to severe literary adaptation The Nun - gives Houellebecq free range to send himself up in a film that has elements of mock-doc and traces of the French autobiographical-novel genre known as ‘autofiction’.

Most of all, though, the film plays like a Gallic answer to Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Houellebecq as a literary Larry David. Highbrow distributors and fests will take a shine to this cheerfully sour pleasure.

Houellebecq has for years, both in novels and interviews, cannily promoted his image as a misanthrope, has become a megastar on the strength of novels such as Whatever, The Elementary Particles (both adapted for the screen) and his recent The Map And The Territory, in which he imagined his own murder. Formally adventurous, outspoken and self-confessedly intolerant about everything from sexual politics to race and religion, Houellebecq revels in his role as a cerebral shock jock - French literature’s Lars von Trier, if you will.

He’s so controversial, indeed, that it was seriously mooted during his disappearance that he may have been abducted by Al-Qaeda. In this film, the answer is simpler. We first see Houellebecq - shambling, disheveled and gnome-like - sitting in his Paris flat discussing kitchen decoration with a friend, then joining a piano-playing friend. Just when the film appears to be going nowhere, three menacing types burst into the writer’s flat and carry him off locked in a box.

These burly guys - ex-Lagerfeld bodyguard Luc (Schwarz), and athletic types Mathieu (Nicourt) and ringleader Maxime (Lefrançois) - have kidnapped the writer at the behest of an unknown client. They fully expect the Goncourt prizewinner to fetch a handsome ransom - even though he assures them that no one will pay out, least of all French president François Hollande.

Even bound hand and foot in the gang’s country hideout, Houellebecq is pretty relaxed about his situation, only concerned that he should be provided with ample cigarettes and novels to read (in-joke: he ends up reading Diderot’s The Nun, with a tie-in cover touting Nicloux’s film). With Mathieu’s elderly parents proving affable hosts, the kidnap proves a very jolly time for all, and an opportunity for captive-captor bonding - the only real tension coming during an argument about The Lord Of The Rings. By the time the gang procure him the services of a local prostitute, Houellebecq is convinced he’s landed on his feet.

Once we get to the hideout, the film settles into a laid-back, spiky and seemingly improvised mode, with an excellent cast rising to the absurdities of the occasion. Whether he’s actually being himself to any real extent, or sending himself up outright, Houellebecq makes game and surprisingly likeable play on his image as a shriveled equal-opportunities hater, sometimes making outrageous political pronouncements (such as calling for civil war in Belgium), sometimes muttering banalities with Warhol-like blankness. And his diffident delivery could teach US indies a thing or two about the true meaning of ‘mumblecore’.

Production companies; Films du Worso, Chic Films, Arte France

International sales; Le Pacte, www.le-pacte.com

Producers; Sylvie Pialat, Marco Cherqui

Screenplay; Guillaume Nicloux

Cinematography; Christophe Offenstein

Editor; Guy Lecorne

Main cast; Michel Houellebecq, Luc Schwarz, Mathieu Nicourt, Maxime Lefrançois, Maria Bourjala