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Can we keep the “spirit” of Michel Houellebecq in prime time on France 2?

Reading Michel Houellebecq is always a dizzying experience! When it was released in August 1998, Elementary particles has been called by critics an “attempt at a total book”. Because the author proved his ability to keep his positions vague, to blur dichotomies and to dissect reality with a sharp eye. Since the writer arranges many types of discourse: novel, family chronicle, essay, poetry, sociology, text analysis, scientific discourse and literary dissertation. Sexual frustration, racism, anti-feminism, anti-libertarianism, pornography, genetic modification… The projectiles were fired. With some 400,000 copies sold, the sacred book “best book of the year” has become cult, Michel Houellebecq, a major writer.

Not far from a quarter of a century later, the publication of a book by Michel Houellebecq, like annihilate, his last novel, is always preceded by a wind of scandal which puts the literary world in effervescence. So, yes, adapt Elementary particles, dense, complex and sulphurous cobblestone of some 600 pages, in two 60-minute episodes in prime time on France 2, broadcast this Monday at 9:10 p.m., is “madness”, as Anne Holmes, director of programs for France Télévisions, points out, during a virtual press conference at which 20 Minutes has assisted.

A fiction, which will undoubtedly be criticized by the exegetes of Michel Houellebecq because “to adapt is to betray”, recalls Gilles Taurand, who stuck to this colossal task with sensitivity. A fiction, which has the merit of “trying to bring to the general public a work like Elementary particles, which spoke in a somewhat visionary way of the extinction of the human species and of a society that leads people to solitude”, greets producer Édouard de Vésinne. So how does the team behind Elementary particles attempted the impossible, bringing Houellebecq to the screen?

A complex narrative over three eras

Elementary particles follows the crossed destinies and the chaotic life of two half-brothers, Michel (Jean-Charles Clichet) and Bruno (Guillaume Gouix) over three different eras. “When you’re a novelist like Michel Houellebecq, you can afford to come and go from the 1950s to the third millennium. When you’re a screenwriter, it’s a whole different ball game,” comments Gilles Taurand.

A first temporality follows the chaotic childhood of the two half-brothers, almost left to themselves, while their mother Janine (Pascale Arbillot) left to experience the sexual revolution in California.

A second temporality follows the two half-brothers into adulthood. The child prodigy Michel has become a genius in molecular biology, incapable of loving. Bruno, a victim of rape and harassment at boarding school, a literature teacher in a frantic search for sexual pleasures.

Finally, a third temporality follows Bruno in the footsteps of Michel, when he mysteriously disappeared in Ireland while he had just made discoveries likely to upset the future of genetics and humanity.

“We had to make the necessary choices on the temporality, the characters and the situations, sums up the screenwriter. To adapt is to choose to cut this or to add that or to increase, for example, the volume of certain secondary characters. What I have done. »

A “very raw” text

The novel Elementary particles does not spare the reader the sessions of sexual humiliation that Bruno undergoes, nor his numerous and desperate attempts to satisfy his insatiable sexual desire. “The ambition was to create in images the text of Michel Houellebecq, which is nevertheless very raw, very singular for the public service. My fear was being told that I missed out on Houellebecq or that I watered it down too much, ”says director Antoine Garceau.

The problem? “When we adapt Michel Houellebecq and if we want to address the greatest number, we cannot do it in less than 16 years, otherwise it does not pass in prime time on the public service”, recalls Anne Holmes, who congratulates “ a goldsmith’s work”, which allowed the audiovisual version of the monument of literature to only get a ban for “under 12 years”.

“From the moment I embark on this kind of adaptation knowing how much Michel Houellebecq is a scandalous author, who also seeks provocation, I did not want to go into the hypersexualization of the scenes. , says the screenwriter. We do without it very well because the sexual distress of a character like Bruno in these sessions with the psychoanalyst, it is much more interesting to insist on that, on the way he talks about his sexual obsession, the misfortune it is. »

The adaptation shows scenes “daring for French television, according to Gilles Taurand. Scenes that evoke quite precisely repetitive masturbations. »

“It was necessary to keep the spirit, to explain the original trauma of Bruno and Michel”, abounds the director. The fiction of France 2 does not ignore shock scenes like the one “where Bruno gets pissed on” at boarding school, underlines the screenwriter.

Rediscovering “the Houellebecquian irony”

Another difficulty and not the least, succeed in transcribing what makes the salt of the author. “I wanted those who read the novel to rediscover Houellebecquian irony”, underlines the screenwriter. “We tried to keep the humor of Michel Houellebecq with the actors when we shot these scenes,” adds Antoine Garceau.

Gilles Taurand, however, refused to dissect Michel and Bruno “like laboratory rats, which Houellebecq does with great talent”, he greets. Psychologist by initial training, he decided to go more towards “psychology” and “emotion” to bring the viewer to take an interest in this “distress, this despair that inhabits these characters”.

“The best way not to betray a book is to love it first, I was first a reader before being an adapter. It seems very important to me when you adapt, whether it’s Proust or something else, to at least respect the spirit, ”considers the screenwriter.

In this sense, Elementary particles on screen have managed to preserve “the substance of Houellebecq’s novel”, concludes the producer. The spirit of a fierce satire on our individualistic and supposedly liberated society and the heartbreaking portrayal of a desperate postmodern western man.

Source: 20minutes

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