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A Night with Michel Houellebecq

I guess it’s some people’s idea of a nightmare – not me, personally I’m a big fan – yes, a night with Michel Houellebecq; the TV show I recently saw on that theme definitely made it look like a nightmarish prospect though.  Well, let’s say it was a little uncomfortable at least…

If you’ve not already seen my post from last week – A couple of things about Michel Houellebecq – that’s also from the same show Durch die Nacht mit…  This is the more in-depth post about the show that I promised/threatened.  Here you go:

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So, the concept is that the show matches up two “celebrities” and they spend an evening in each other’s company with the cameras following them on their night out.  They matched up Michel Houellebecq – a very misunderstood and talented writer, in my opinion, and not so much an enfant terrible as a (sometimes) badly behaved adult on self-destruct who wants to épater le bourgeois in his own sweet way – with the Spanish theatre director Calixto Bieito, who makes “sexy”, violent, contemporary versions of operas and classical theatre pieces.

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I don’t want to disrespect Calixto Bieito because he seemed like such a lovely man throughout this show – even when having to babysit Houellebecq, who seemed highly disinterested in the entire process – but, firstly, I can’t stand opera anyway and, secondly, the one thing worse than opera to me is contemporary opera.  They showed some clips of the lovely Mr Bieito’s work on the show and, god, it made me want to spit up blood.  I have coined my own term for his type of opera, let’s see if it takes on: wheelybag opera.  Yes, wheelybags are despicable but wheelybags + opera = a pile of w***.  Speaking of which, here are some clips of Calixto Bieito’s work:

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During the show you see a clip of a very posh gentleman running out of one of Bieito’s shows to be sick – or to spit up blood? – a kindred spirit maybe!  Anyway, that’s all I shall say on this because I really did like this man Calixto Bieito.

The reason the show hooked up Houellebecq with Bieito was, no doubt, because they both do work that upsets certain people and also because Bieito was, at that point (2006), adapting Platform for the theatre to put on a show at the Edinburgh Festival.  Perhaps Houellebecq could offer him some advice?  Erm… All in good time!

Let’s run through the evening, what happens and what we learn:

  • Houellebecq believes it’s very important that people like him because he feels it’s the only thing that saves him from being locked up – good luck with that, Michel, I like you but somehow not everyone manages to see the good in you

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  • Bieito really admires Houellebecq and thinks he’s “a great visionary and above all a great humanist” – he identifies with his work and sees him as “a Romantic of the 21st century” (I have to chip in here and say I totally agree with Bieito on all of this – I think Houellebecq is a visionary who sees far too much and this is part of the problem for some people; Houellebecq offers up visions of a world that people find hard to stomach, but sadly it’s a future that’s far more believable than most would like to admit)
  • Bieito has to make all the effort with the conversation, when he doesn’t he and Houellebecq both sit in silence in uncomfortable “tumbleweed moments” – it’s a shame because Bieito is such a warm person, whilst Houellebecq finds it hard to hold a conversation.  At one point, whilst Houellebecq is having one of many cigarettes, a clock chiming across from the theatre only serves to indicate the length of time they have been stood next to each other in silence on the balcony

Tumbleweed moments with…

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Tumbleweed moments without…

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  • Bieito tries to make a nice gesture to Houellebecq – he takes him to a bookshop to buy him a book (which Houellebecq accepts – a bit ungraciously) and some music (which Houellebecq refuses – very ungraciously) – “I have no room in my pocket, it’s only a pocket book…” and he doesn’t really like Wagner anyway (he likes Bach’s Mass in B Minor), so he tells Bieito to buy himself some Ligeti instead “I will wait for you. Yes, do it.  The book is enough.”
  • Bieito refers to the theatre as “his” – in what sounds like a tense moment, although it’s possibly just a language problem, Houellebecq asks him “What do you mean when you say it’s your theatre?  Why is it yours?” Bieito is the Artistic Director of the theatre he’s talking about. Ah! The penny drops!
  • When Bieito tells Houellebecq he has a bar at “his” theatre, Houellebecq’s eyes light up, until he sees the bar then he immediately says, “You need to decorate”

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  • The most excrutiating tumbleweed moment ensues when Bieito asks Houellebecq for advice on Platform and if he could maybe stay for 3 or 4 days to help him with the text.  Instead of answering the question, after a long and painful silence he finally says what he thinks Bieito needs to bear in mind about how to portray Valerie – “You have to imagine what a woman wants to be according to women’s magazines.  Very good in everything.  I mean – a good worker, a good mother, a very horny slut and everything at the same time.”  He thinks Jade Jagger would make a good Valerie, but here’s what he thinks about Valerie:  “Valerie is a fantasy.  It’s a modern fantasy.  To have success in everything.  In a job, in sex, everything.  And she’s good too.  Morally.  In moral terms.”

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  • Houellebecq (regarding the Jade Jagger idea) says, “Sometimes I have good ideas.  Not very often but sometimes.  I don’t have a lot of bad ideas.  I have a few ideas.  I have one idea in two years maybe.  It’s a very slow process.”  Here’s one of my diagrams for you, I’ve got into doing them since the Kaurismäki post:
  • Houellebecq ideas diagramMH21MH22Houellebecq is a bit nonplussed when a guy in the bar asks him to sign an autograph in turquoise pen – “You like to write in turquoise?  It’s strange to write in turquoise.  It’s a beautiful colour really.”  He then scribbles in the guy’s book just so he can admire the colour of the pen

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  • Bieito asks Houellebecq if he would like to test out the acoustics on the stage by saying something – he firmly declines
  • Bieito introduces Houellebecq to a famous Spanish actor called Josep Maria Pou, who is a big fan of Houellebecq’s and declares himself capable of playing any of his characters when Houellebecq asks him which of his characters he would like to play.  Considering Josep Maria Pou was at that time playing a man who has sexual relations with a goat (in an Edward Albee play – The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?), it’s always possible
  • When Josep Maria Pou tells Houellebecq, “I can’t speak French”, Houellebecq replies, “You should”!

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  • Because Josep Maria Pou has been bragging (sort of) about being able to “play anything”, Houellebecq tells him that he can “play nothing” and a debate ensues wherein Bieito and Pou (ha ha, I just said poo!) try as they might to get Houellebecq to appreciate that it is impossible to play nothing – “Just a man only on the stage thinking is playing”.  Houellebecq just looks bored  (I sympathise with Houellebecq here, they’re taking things too literally and their “craft” too seriously)

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  • Bieito takes Houellebecq out to dine at Casa Leopoldo and they have a conversation about relaxing and the pressures of work – Houellebecq’s thoughts on it all:  “There’s not a lot of pressure but it’s a strange life.  I’m not sure I want a life more intense.  But myself I’m not a happy person.  So I like to be in a place where people are sad sometimes.  I couldn’t live in Ibiza…”
  • Does Houellebecq think he could be happier?  “Maybe it is better if you try to have less money and less problems.  Become more modest with ambitions.”
  • Somehow the conversation turns to the question of whether or not all Latinos are macho, believe it or not.  Houellebecq is uncertain but Bieito is firm on this one – “No, don’t piss me off!  Don Juan doesn’t exist anymore.  No.  Only in pieces of theatre.”  Whatever…

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  • Steering Houellebecq away from any further racial stereotypes, Bieito opts for something more lighthearted – an easy, fun (two-part) question like “What is your role in this huge masquerade? What is your mask?”  That’s when Houellebecq tells him he knows two things: he is a good writer and he is going to die.  A two-part answer with an unhappy ending.  Although he does concede, surprisingly, that “I think maybe I am simple because to be famous is very good”
  • In the car on their way to the next venue, Bieito and Houellebecq discuss good parenting skills.  Bieito admits he is a softie with his kids but Houellebecq says he was able to discipline his son because he was shocked at his ego and you have to do it because the ego is unlimited.  “You are not the only person in the world.  Slap!  I exist too!”

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  • Bieito tries to round off the evening with one of those media events that he doesn’t like going to (which surprises me somewhat) – so they head off to MACBA (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona) where Houellebecq tells him that he likes these parties because “It’s very easy to have a drink”
  • At the MACBA party Houellebecq perks up a bit (for a short time at least) because he gets talking to a female – his face lights up when he meets ladies, look

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The best picture to sum it all up is this one – Houellebecq smiles for the lady, ignores Bieito and Bieito looks sad and lonely:MH43

  • Bear in mind, right, that earlier in the evening Houellebecq had told Bieito that he thinks he could do contemporary art himself because “it’s easy”, but he’s not sure why – how do you think their visit to the contemporary art gallery will go?

MH39Houellebecq somehow finds a nudie lady…

MH40And so does Bieito

  • Bieito tries to get things back on track with Houellebecq by forcing him to accept a hug and then suggesting that they link arms

MH41Houellebecq’s approach to hugging – “look, mom, no hands!”

MH42Aw! Friends forever?  What do you reckon?

  • By the end of the evening, Houellebecq is a bit worse for wear.  Bieito puts him in a car and tells him, “I’m very happy you were here.”  There is no response from Houellebecq.  So poor old Bieito, who has soldiered on all evening, says, “Take care of yourself.  Or not.”

MH7Take care of your blue eyes.

No doubt Bieito needed a hug from his wife when he got home.  You have to hope he managed to get over the experience somehow.  Still, I’d like to meet Houellebecq myself.  Not sure what I would say to him, maybe I’d just ask him to sign an autograph for me.  In turquoise pen.

Here’s a few more Houellebecq pics:

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This episode of Durch die Nacht mit was directed by Hasko Baumann.

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About tinynoggin

I love films (anything from exploitation stuff to stylish Eastern European cinema, but I'm not really into blockbusters and modern Hollywood), music (Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Michel Polnareff, Left Banke, Francoise Hardy, The Seeds, Love, The Zombies, etc) and books (Kurt Vonnegut, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Hamilton, Alan Sillitoe, and more). I take photographs with my Lomography Diana F plus or my Olympus Trip and like making stuff in my spare time.

10 responses to “A Night with Michel Houellebecq

  1. Sally ⋅

    Brilliant article.

  2. Hasko Baumann ⋅

    This is a wonderful read. It brings back a lot of memories. Thank you for this detailed account of a very odd night.

    • Wow, thanks for getting in touch! I loved the show, you did a good job – it was such a difficult watch though. I really like Houellebecq (I guess you can tell!) but it seemed like hard work to get him “involved”. Whereas I have no interest in Calixto Bieito’s work at all and yet he was the adorable one, the one you’d spend an easier evening with (so long as he didn’t make you watch modern opera!). Well, that’s what I think anyway. I still wouldn’t mind meeting Houellebecq though! Did you do any other shows like this?

      • Hasko Baumann ⋅

        Oh yes. This has been part of a series called Durch die Nacht mit (Into the Night) which is still on-going. I actually did 53 of those! Here is a full list of episodes if you’re interested: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durch_die_Nacht_mit_%E2%80%A6
        Thank you for the kind words. It was one of, maybe THE most difficult show I did; it was also hard to edit until I made the decision to show the evening as it was. I tried to accentuate it with the music which is quite ironic in some moments. The show got really good reviews back then which was comforting, but a number of Houellebecq devotees was (and still is, it seems) quite angry at me which I never really understood.

      • Wow, I must find some of these – a great list of interviews there. I would love to see Udo Kier with Grayson Perry; Franco Nero with Fred Williamson; Jodorowsky with Daniel Pinchbeck; Miranda July with David Shrigley. And more. Ignore the Houellebecq fans, well apart from me I mean, they probably thought he was edited in a bad light. But if he doesn’t like joining in, he doesn’t like joining in – you can’t exactly make him look like the life and soul of the party when he says so little! I just wondered why he agreed to do the show in the first place. He didn’t look at all comfortable – and he kept wandering off in the wrong direction too! Keep up the good work, Hasko, that show was SO good!

  3. Hasko Baumann ⋅

    Thank you again! Exactly, I thought the whole time, why did he agree to do this show? But the funniest thing is, he actually was enjoying himself and, believe it or not, he worked together with Calixto very soon afterwards!

    • That’s good to know. Even if he’s incapable of showing his enjoyment, except for a couple of moments when he was being cheeky and made himself laugh. Thanks again for getting in touch – I’m looking forward to seeing some more of these shows. The Franco Nero one may be next!

  4. Pingback: Jodorowsky reads the tarot for Daniel Pinchbeck |

  5. Pingback: Interview with Durch die Nacht mit director Hasko Baumann |

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