De Volkskrant, 2023-03-14

‘Ik ben oerstom geweest’: hoe Houellebecq terechtkwam in de Nederlandse seksfilm die hij wil laten verbieden

Ariejan Korteweg en Eline Huisman, De Volkskrant, 2023 March 14

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

‘I have been extremely stupid’: how Houellebecq ended up in the Dutch sex film he wants banned

The row surrounding writer Michel Houellebecq, who wants a sex film starring him banned, is one in a long line of controversies. How did he get so caught up in the game he usually plays cunningly?

French writer Michel Houellebecq wants the Dutch film with explicit images in which he plays a leading role to be banned. Now that that request has failed at the court in Paris, the battleground moves to Amsterdam. Today, the Dutch court is considering the conflict between Houellebecq and artist Stefan Ruitenbeek of collective Kirac, known for controversial projects, which produced the film. The verdict will follow in a fortnight.

With “bewilderment and disgust”, Houellebecq and his wife Qianyun Lysis Li watched the trailer, which appeared online in late January (and has since been taken offline). While in it, the writer lies in bed, kissing a young woman, the voiceover promises what will be seen in the film: curious fans sleeping with the famous writer while the camera captures everything. Outraged by the “irreparable damage” to their private lives, the couple tried to get the trailer and the film banned in France.

Now that that has failed, the writer is aiming his arrows in the Amsterdam court not directly at the film itself, but at the contract that was concluded over the filming. According to Jacqueline Schaap, his Dutch lawyer, that contract is so unreasonable that it violates the law. Houellebecq would not be given any control over the use of the footage. Moreover, according to Schaap, the writer was under the influence of antidepressants and alcohol at the time of signing.

The film was due to premiere 11 March at the Betty Asfalt Complex in Amsterdam, a day after the publication of Vernietigen, the Dutch translation of Houellebecq’s latest novel: Anéantir. That premiere has been postponed for now. Ruitenbeek says he hopes to still come to an agreement with Houellebecq. According to Houellebecq’s lawyer, the writer has insisted on a settlement, but there is little progress in the negotiations.

Lost for a while
French writer Michel Houellebecq’s oeuvre often seems to bivouac in the twilight zone between fiction and reality. Terrorist attacks, peasant uprisings, the rise of the far right, tourism as the last salvation for the countryside – he wrote about it before it became visible to everyone.

He also pushes that boundary in films. In 2013, Houellebecq was lost for a while; while he had to give all kinds of lectures and interviews, nobody knew where he was. With that fact, director Guillaume Nicloux made a feature film, L’enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq, in which the writer turns out to have been kidnapped by a gang. Houellebecq plays himself in the film, driving the other protagonists, some of whom have criminal pasts, to despair by repeatedly asking for cigarettes. For the film, without a script worked out in detail, the actors were put together for a month, after which the best scenes were used. Houellebecq expressed satisfaction with the result.

That procedure is somewhat similar to what Dutchman Stefan Ruitenbeek had in mind. With his organisation Kirac (Keeping It Real Art Critics), he has been making videos since 2016, published on his own platform, in which people from the art world play a prominent role. Those people are quite often put in compromising situations. The films sometimes cause uproar because the protagonists regret their cooperation or feel they have been lied to.

Controversial figures
The latter applied to Sid Lukkassen, a young Forum for Democracy-affiliated philosopher. Who responded to an appeal by Amsterdam student Jini van Rooijen on GeenStijl, to find right-wing men who wanted to “fuck her left-wing pussy” for her graduation project. The meeting of the two was filmed by Ruitenbeek, initially with Lukkassen’s approval. The latter regrets it at some point, saying: ‘I don’t want you to use this footage.’ He withdrew his cooperation, but the fragment can nevertheless be seen in Honeypot, including other footage of their meeting.

Ruitenbeek likes to seek out controversial figures. The Hague artist Julian A., for instance, also recently participated in a show by Kirac. A. is being prosecuted by the OM for multiple reports of violence and sexual abuse. Kirac’s work often has sexual overtones. But Houellebecq initially approached him with a proposal for a joint art project in Amsterdam.

Like Kirac, Houellebecq shows an interest in all kinds of sexual activities in his oeuvre, and both use provocation as a stylistic device. In Vernietigen, a remarkably mild book in Houellebecq’s oeuvre in which sex hardly plays a role, the main character makes paid love to a student who – without knowing it – turns out to be his own niece.

In November, Ruitenbeek went to Paris, accompanied by Jini van Rooijen, who had participated in the film with Lukkassen. They met up with Houellebecq and Qianyun Li, his wife since 2018. Beforehand, Ruitenbeek had sent some films. At least Honeypot the writer would have seen. ‘I was not wrong when they watched,’ says Ruitenbeek. ‘But he told me he saw it all the way through.’ Houellebecq himself says he watched with half an eye. Sex scenes were filmed in Paris, with Houellebecq’s wife also present, and arrangements were made for a sequel in Amsterdam, where, according to Ruitenbeek, there were young women craving sex with the famous writer.

‘Including sexual acts’
From then on, versions began to diverge. When the writer and his wife went to Amsterdam on 21 December, they were met at the train station by a team from Ruitenbeek with the camera rolling, that much is certain. Houellebecq was not amused; according to the writer, neither he nor his wife had been asked for permission to do so. Moreover, the director allegedly promised the couple anonymity at their request by not showing their faces recognisably in the picture. In an open letter to the director, published on his own site, Houellebecq writes that he regrets not having thrown the camera into the first ditch. According to Ruitenbeek, however, they were aware. ‘His wife, nota bene, said she had put on some nice clothes for that.’

That night, a contract was signed in the Houellebecq couple’s hotel room, by which the writer probably handed himself over skin and hair to Ruitenbeek and Kirac. That contract, which is in the hands of the Volkskrant, states that Ruitenbeek may use any footage of Houellebecq and his wife that he can lay his hands on, that Houellebecq cooperates in the project free of charge, has no say whatsoever, is not allowed to see the film in advance and that all income is for Ruitenbeek.

It was also stipulated that the Houellebecq couple would take part in a film ‘including sexual acts and genitalia’, although these would not be allowed to be shown in a single image with the recognisable faces of Houellebecq and Li. So much for anonymity; in footage showing “caressing, hugging, physical intimacy and kissing”, the contract states, recognisable faces are possible.

Unreasonable contract
‘I have never read such an unreasonable and bad contract,’ says lawyer Schaap. Houellebecq signed it without advice from his entourage. ‘None of his agents seemed to know about this,’ confirms French journalist Sophie des Déserts, who spoke at length to the writer’s family, friends and advisers for a profile in French newspaper Libération. ‘Had he discussed this with those around him, they would certainly have discouraged him.’ Lawyer Schaap confirmed that.

In the days that followed the signing of the contract, attempts were made to shoot sex scenes. According to the director, very successfully, according to the writer, nothing happened. Ruitenbeek says in the French edition of Vice that Houellebecq shared the bed with four women – a lie, according to the writer. Just like the story from the trailer, in which Ruitenbeek’s voice-over tells of a cancelled trip to Morocco for which wife Li had been ‘busy for a month from Paris arranging the prostitutes in advance’. Houellebecq in itself does not object to an explicit film, his lawyer argues, but he does object to ‘a film in which inaccuracies are proclaimed as truths over which he has no further control’.

Has Houellebecq become entangled by his contract with Ruitenbeek in a game he usually plays so cunningly himself? ‘That is the question,’ says journalist Des Déserts. ‘Houellebecq provokes, manipulates and plays with boundaries between reality and fiction. Suddenly he has hit someone who works the same way. It is a bit like he has been wounded by his own fireworks. What Houellebecq’s depiction of this project was remains a mystery. But he probably anticipated neither the scale of this scandal nor Ruitenbeek’s intransigence.’

In France, the trailer was seen as yet another stunt by a writer who has made provocation his trademark. A few weeks before, Muslims had had their turn again: in an interview with Front Populaire, Houellebecq called the far-right conspiracy theory about repopulation a fact and said that native French people mainly want Muslims to stop “robbing and attacking” them. Afterwards, Houellebecq said he was unaware of having hurt the Muslim community. Des Déserts puts both issues in light of disappointing sales success of Anéantir and the hoped-for Nobel Prize that passed him by. ‘His latest book is softer, less Islam and sexuality, and does not have the success of his previous novels. And suddenly there are these outrageous statements about Muslims and a pornographic film.’

Pure sadness
Ruitenbeek told Vice in early February that Houellebecq was unhappy and depressed when they met and that he was shocked by this. Yet that is no reason for him to abandon the film now. ‘We are both artists, we had an agreement and there are other people involved. Then you can’t just withdraw. My admiration for him has remained. I would have loved to engage in conversation. Who knows, maybe the film would be more agreeable to him.’

Martin de Haan, who as Houellebecq’s regular translator is in regular contact with him, is not happy with the turn of events. ‘At such a moment, you want all attention to be focused on the Dutch edition of the novel. That moment is now being hijacked by this affair. I am holding four lectures in the Netherlands this week and already know that many questions will be about this.’ According to Ruitenbeek, the coincidence of those dates is coincidental. ‘The book was supposed to come out earlier first.’

‘It is pure sadness,’ says De Haan. ‘Houellebecq calls this on himself with all his clumsiness. He is wildly intelligent, but in the process impulsive and impractical.’ He asked the writer straight out: haven’t you been naive? Houellebecq’s answer: ‘J’étais con’ – I was primal.