'Like a Future which has already Happened'

Chris Darke on Philippe Harel’s film adaptation of Whatever

“At times, too, I’ve had the impression that I’d manage to feel quite at home in a life of vacuity. That the relative painless boredom would enable me to go on making the usual gestures of life. Another big mistake. Prolonged boredom is not tenable as a position: sooner or later it is transformed into feelings that are acutely more painful, of true pain; this is precisely what is happening to me.” –Whatever

Nothing dates as fast as the future. Philippe Harel’s extremely faithful film adaptation of Houellebecq’s Whatever is science-faction: the present world depicted “like a future which has already happened”, as Harel has put it. Director and writer collaborated closely, choosing locations and adapting texts from works beyond the novel for the largely voice-over led narration. Harel himself played the (anti)hero with gestures and a disassociated mien that are unmistakably Houellebecq’s own.

The world of Whatever is one of corridors and car parks, hotel rooms and administrative complexes – what Marc Augé has christened the ‘Non Places’ of supermodernity. Rouen and Paris form a bloodless world of functionaries and technocrats, mediocrity modelled to a Mondrian grid. Little wonder that Houellebecq’s vision upset so many in France: here was an institutional insider laying bare the impoverishment of humanity that the technological revolution requires. With the Vivendi merger pushing French telematics to the forefront of the official account of global media convergence, Harel and Houellebecq have produced a film that’s almost anthropological in its take on the figures that populate this world.

The film’s vision is not new – Godard in his 60s films on Paris (AlphavilleDeux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle) and Georges Perec in his novel Les Choses depicted technocratic urbanism in its first post-war phase. In Houellebecq’s case what’s different is the diagnosis: political action is a poisoned chalice, sexual liberation has become a consumerist pantomime. All that’s left are the odd couple of the hero and his unlikely companion Tisserand, two lab-rats bouncing back and forth between stimuli, heading stoically towards the abyss.

Chris Darke <chris AT metamute.com>

This article relates to Liberte, Egalite, Systeme, Michel Houellebecq in Conversation