Michel Houllebecq’s politically incorrect outbursts and deeply misanthropic novels have earned him the status of bête noire of a rather stuffy, conservative and insular French literary scene, but there is no other modern French author who has achieved even a fraction of Houllebecq’s international notoriety, critical acclaim or worldwide sales. Typically, Houellebecq’s provocative and controversial novels present a very bleak and cynical outlook on modern lifestyles. In his first novel ‘Extension du Domain de la Lutte’, the protagonist, disenchanted with a banal routine life, living in a suburban apartment and working as an anonymous IT technician, escapes from the city with a beleaguered work colleague. The journey to the provinces is not as one might expect an attempt to find a better life, but merely an opportunity to extend the range of the protagonist’s bitter outlook by systematically destroying any illusions that life could be better elsewhere. This sense of a deep-rooted malaise and self-destructive drive within people was taken further in his third novel ‘Plateforme’, the principal character seeking love and solace in sexual adventures and exploitation of third world nations through sexual tourism. The controversy of the book’s explicit and taboo content was fuelled by less than favourable comments the author would make in an interview about the Muslim religion, but Houellebecq’s dark predictions of an Islamic fundamentalist backlash against the decadent lifestyles that Western values were promoting or fostering proved rather premonitory when the book was published only months before 9/11.
As a philosophy of life however, Houellebecq’s novels perhaps say more about his own outlook than they do about life in general for most people (and in fact, the character played by Philippe Harel in the filmed version of ‘Extension du Domain de la Lutte’ (unimaginatively titled Whatever in English) bears more than a passing resemblance to Houellebecq and his mannerisms), with them increasingly slipping into almost self-parody. They do however demonstrate an insight into the dissatisfaction with life that people are not finding in the high-flying careers opened up by globalisation and technological advances, nor in the freedoms that were promised by the sexual revolution of the late-sixties and seventies. These are the areas that Houellebecq explores in his novel ‘Les Particules Élémentaires’, adapted here by German director Oskar Roehler as Elementarteilchen, which in the UK retains the title of the book’s English translation, Atomised.
Atomised explores these themes through the characteristics of two half-brothers who couldn’t be more different. Michael Djerzinski (Christian Ulmen) is an important biochemist, who resigns from an important research post to return to an earlier project he has abandoned. In his own search for rational knowledge, he has cut himself off from personal and emotional attachments and is in fact working on a technique or theory for the reproduction of organisms without sexual contact. His half-brother Bruno Klement (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a literature teacher, more interested in the emotional drives that lead people to be creative. For Bruno, it’s an erotic force that he finds powerfully overwhelming. No longer finding his wife sexually attractive, he obsesses over his young female students and sublimates any residual creative impulse towards the writing of racist tracts that are too venomous to be publishable.
Both brothers suffer from traumatic incidents in their past, principally a lack of concern for their welfare from their mother Jane (Nina Hoss), who leaves them to go and live on a hippy commune. The freedom offered by the changing attitudes towards sexuality in the 1960s however affects the boys in different ways. Bruno is too uptight and repressed, sexually fantasising over his own mother and unable to form a meaningful emotional relationship with women as a youth, his dysfunction driving him towards a mental breakdown as an adult. Michael on the other hand recalls a chaste childhood romance with Annabelle (Franka Potente) that he rejected in favour of rationalism, but it’s something that in later life he comes to regret and seeks to amend. When Bruno meets Christine (Martina Gedeck – perfect) and Michael meets Annabelle again, it seems that life has thrown both brothers a lifeline, a second chance to make things right, but it has more shocks in store for both of them.
The crisis of the pampered middle-classes, dissatisfied that the failure of the revolutions of the 1960s to bring about the promised sexual, creative and social freedom, recalls the work of J.G. Ballard, and like Ballard, Houellebecq makes use of science fiction motifs to present a more detached clinical overview of modern life. In his most recent novel ‘The Possibility of an Island’, an examination of the impulses that brought about the destruction of the original human race is examined by post-humans through the revival of clones 24 and 25 of a man named Daniel who has been cryogenically preserved through his adherence to a religious sect. ‘Atomised’ made use of a similar science-fiction framing device, one that looks upon a now extinct form of the human race, seeking to find the roots of the malaise that brought about its demise and evolution to a new existence. These are the concerns of Atomised and it tries to incorporate a wealth of issues regarding sexuality, existence, mortality, the neuroses of modern living and, above all, the pursuit of happiness - all of the things that make existence both worthwhile and intolerable at the same time.
What provokes interesting questions in a prose format however tends to lose something when translated to the screen, and Atomised is reasonably close to the original novel and adheres reasonably faithfully to its themes and tone – at least until the end when it gets hopelessly lost. What it lacks however is Houellebecq’s dry, clinical prose with its deep cynicism which, although not without humour, seems faintly ridiculous when converted into images. A scene at a New Age Centre for example comes across as something out of Carry On Camping, with none of the shock value of Houllebecq’s deeply cynical and unconventional worldview. Or perhaps the film just shows up the true nature of Houllebecq’s work for what it is – nihilistic, venomous, provocative and deeply politically incorrect, an outspoken voice that challenges the comfortable views that support the ideologies of the modern literary establishment, but is somehow too obsessively wrapped-up in its own limited concerns to have any wider purpose or meaning.
Atomised is released in the UK by Momentum. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.
Momentum’s DVD transfer of Atomised is just about perfect, or close enough for it not to matter. The image is sharp and detailed, while colours are clear, rich and accurate, even coping well with the deep saturation on the flashback scenes. There are no significant marks and scarcely a flicker in a very stable transfer, which has no digital artefacting problems and no edge enhancement. You would need to be watching this very carefully and closely on a quite large display to notice any compression blocking. The only thing marring the transfer unfortunately is the thick, large, fixed English subtitles.
There is no surround mix included on this edition of the film, though I am sure it will be on other international editions. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track however is more than adequate for the demands of the film, remaining clear and well-toned, with no real problems.
English subtitles are in a white font, but are fixed on the transfer and cannot be removed for the German dialogue. A few sections of the film in English have optional subtitles in a smaller sized white font.
Extra features are little beyond the standard material, but are reasonably informative. A Trailer (1:52) promises more than the film delivers by focussing very heavily on the sexually explicit material, which is a lot tamer than it appears here. The Making Of (23:26) is a standard TV feature, consisting of film clips and interviews, covering the themes in Houellebecq’s work and what drew the filmmakers and the actors to the material. Drawn and extended from the Making Of, Interviews delving further into these questions are conducted with Oskar Roehler (6:19), Bernd Eichinger (5:13), Oliver Bernen (3:00), Moritz Bleibtreu (4:51), Christian Ulmen (3:41), Martina Gedeck (3:39), Franka Potente (3:09) and Nina Hoss (2:43).
Oskar Roehler’s adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s novel is fairly faithful to the source, taking on much of the French novelist’s dark cynicism and nihilistic outlook, but its curiously sterile approach lacks the real edginess and conviction that is required here. Part of Houellebecq’s aim in Atomised is surely to upset people and shake them out of their comfortable middle-class illusions in order to get them to take a good hard look at themselves and the world they have created around them. An adaptation of Houellebecq perhaps then shouldn’t be quite as safe and unchallenging as this.