The Possibility of an Island
Director: Michel Houellebecq. Cast: Benoît Magimel, Patrick Bauchau, Ramata Koite, Jean-Pierre Malo, Andrzej Seweryn, Patrick Rameau. Screenplay: Michel Houellebecq.




Photo © 2008 Mandarin Films
Michel Houellebecq raises the possibility of an idea in this pessimistic projection of neutered humanity and global collapse, but by the time it has reached the screen, it's been so tortured with clunky devices and so overladen with formal and dramatic non sequiturs that I couldn't remotely tell you what that idea is. Patrick Bauchau, rarely a harbinger of great things to come, opens the movie as a sort of guru of futuristic technologies and of vague, mystical slogans about human progress and new dawns. He's dressed in a white cellophane suit and has a fist-sized silver medallion hanging from a chain around his neck: the kind of costume that George Jetson might have worn to a disco revival, and though you wouldn't quite call The Possibility of an Island a fully earnest work, it's just as clear that we are not being prepped for anything like a quality production or a camp intelligence, or for anything so debased as a good time. Very early, through some sharply incongruous cross-cutting and a bulk-load of unconvincing makeup, we realize that we'll be shifting among hugely divergent timeframes, characters, and realities, so it behooves us to hang onto Bauchau's speeches if we're to have any clue about what's coming up. I more or less listened, though my heart was going out to the narcotized hobos who are Bauchau's onscreen audience, one of whom plops right out of his chair for combined reasons of boredom and chemical dependency. Shame on me: by the time we were dropped into a floridly fake and dully sarcastic multicultural resort, with dozens of national flags hanging over the entrance and scores of tacky doofuses holding swimsuit competitions and practicing tai chi, I had lost track of what this all had to do with the future of cloning, the dawn of the "neohuman," the biblical Song of Songs, or the heavily latexed Benoît Magimel, squatting in a cave in some distant eon, fingering the touchpad surfaces of an electronic book. This book is either an artifact he doesn't understand, or a chronicle of all this Bauchauian foolishness that Houellebecq has restaged, or else is some literary divertissement to tide him over through The Possibility of an Island's deadly first hour. In these respective cases, I feel his pain, I wonder why he's bothering, and I wish he'd loan me a copy.

Somewhere, this film will probably accrue the kind of bowled-over enthusiast who will write to chide me for my incomprehension as well as my frank disdain, and if you're that enthusiast, then good on you, really. The Possibility of an Island is so unlike other movies that the very pre-condition for its existence is that some rogue minority in the world wishes that movies were entirely different from what they are, and different (here's the kicker) in this ungainly way. A certain kind of viewer, albeit hard for me to imagine, is probably in for the lumpy stew of Houllebecq's registers (fantasy, allegory, farce, dissertation) and the grandiloquence of the images and especially the soundtrack (blaring with brass and stentorian choruses, just when the film might benefit from a hush). I couldn't think what to do with lines of dialogue like "The pottery workshop reminds me of the Book of Genesis!", especially given that Island foregoes the light, chuckly winks at its own egghead idiosyncrasies that you find in oddball semi-scholastic works like Lynn Hershman-Leeson's Teknolust. Houellebecq has perpetrated a movie about, among other things, technological radicalism, but his moviemaking—and I would insist on this even to the hypothetical, cultish devotée of the future—is barely in touch with the formal essentials of Coolidge-era cinema, much less the mutations of moviemaking that could have made The Possibility of an Island compelling in that cold, break-the-frame, Peter Greenaway sort of way. In the early going, with Bauchau spouting his nonsense and Magimel 1.0 sulking behind a table of brochures, and the flanneled, piss-panted audience dazed in their seats and spilling out of the lecture hall, I thought The Possibility of an Island might be looking for the rude, bonkers exaggeration of a Léos Carax, who at least would have pumped some gushing, infected blood into Bauchau's proselytizing. He also might have saved through vulgar, defiant conviction Houellebecq's limpest and most embarrassing figure, a semi-wordless black woman who carries over from century to century, even after the earth has withstood a coruscating holocaust, so that she can clamber over the rubble and tuck her breast in and out of her ragged, single-strap dress. After that apocalypse—the yield, apparently, of a "First Reduction" and then a "Second Reduction" and then a "Great Drying Up" that charred and withered the planet—it became clearer that The Possibility of an Island's only conceivable precursors were those Pasolini constructions like Teorema and Porcile, which cross-cut perpetually between purposefully stilted scenes of bourgeois and upper-class anomie and the steaming shit-sty of basalt and lava rocks that "represented" the essence of capitalist immorality, as well as the certain trajectory of the planet. Most often with Terence Stamp or Pierre Clémenti scuttling over the lava rocks and ejaculating little growls of frustration or desire.

Houellebecq, a theorist and writer of some renown in Francophile circles, has certainly got Pasolini's aspirations toward the fusion of art and didactic ideology, but he hasn't got the faintest whiff of Pasolini's grace and poetry, which Pasolini himself didn't always achieve (wittingly or otherwise), but which is impossible to deny across his body of work. Nor can Houellebecq muster the discipline for the sort of dialectical montage that, yes, can reduce an entire movie to an endlessly reiterated dichotomy but at least has given some elementary structure over the years to some intellectual pouts trying to mask themselves as art (and has also, of course, given just the right, vital structure to a priceless clutch of masterpieces). Magimel, who came off so grossly as the slick-lizard scion in Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two, hasn't got the technique or the free-standing charisma that allows a Terence Stamp to go through the motions assigned by a madman-poet-didactician and still stand somehow apart from the wreckage and outside the circle of blame. You keep catching Magimel trying to act beneath all that makeup, and overtop all the verbal gobbledygook, though the "acting" of which I speak tends toward the same stranded expression of lament and the palpable yearning (or was I imagining it?) to be over and done with this farrago of a film. Must have sounded better on paper, even with the line about the pottery workshop. Houellebecq may well have things to say, but The Possibility of an Island didn't convince me of his gifts for coherence, and it makes painfully clear that when he thinks about whatever it is he thinks about, he doesn't do so in remotely cinematic terms. I don't want to see Houellebecq's dystopian metaphysical disquisition all scrawled and boxed into a medium he hasn't got any feel for, just as I wouldn't want to see a dance by Clint Eastwood or eat a meal cooked by Frank Gehry. If you pick the wrong tools, if you use them so as to imply that you are condescending to them and disobeying them at the same time, and if you do it all in service to a complex of aggregated conceits that bark and grind against each other without speaking to a single other person, to include your mulish-looking actors, then you achieve not just the possibility but the certainty of an island. D


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