De Volkskrant, 2023-04-13

Misschien dat Michel Houellebecq maar een boek gaat schrijven over deze ‘sombre histoire’

Ariejan Korteweg, De Volkskrant, 2023 April 13

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

Perhaps Michel Houellebecq will just write a book about this ‘sombre histoire’

Next week Michel Houellebecq’s appeal against art collective Kirac will be heard. In the Parisian flat where he wrote the novel Destroy, the writer plans to give his take on the case.

It is Tuesday night and the phone rings. On the display an unknown number starting with 0033: France. A voice so soft it cannot be heard. Excusez-moi? Another murmur and then it penetrates: Michel Houellebecq. It is the day the 67-year-old French writer lost in Amsterdam the lawsuit he had filed against the Amsterdam art collective Kirac. That had shot film footage of Houellebecq having sex a few months earlier for the film Kirac 27, to be released this spring, but the writer regretted cooperating. Fearing that releasing the footage would seriously damage his reputation, he filed a lawsuit – which he consequently lost.

The riot has occupied the media in France, the Netherlands and far beyond in recent months. At its core, it revolves around recognisability and a rather far-reaching contract. Kirac (short for Keeping It Real Art Critics) is an Amsterdam-based art collective that aims to make hypocrisy visible, including through films. The collective gained national fame in 2021 with Honeypot, which shows how Forum for Democracy-affiliated philosopher Sid Lukkassen responded to the call of a student and porn actress, Jini van Rooijen, who was looking for a ‘right-wing partner’ to have sex with. Their meeting and lovemaking were filmed, but afterwards Lukkassen regretted it and tearfully cancelled his cooperation. That too was filmed and the scene ended up in the movie.

Something similar happened to Houellebecq. In early November 2022, he had an appointment in Paris with Stefan Ruitenbeek, the leader of the collective. Houellebecq also had sex with Van Rooijen, which was filmed by Kirac. He then came to Amsterdam for more sex organised by Ruitenbeek and signed a strangulation contract that the judge said he could not get out of. The verdict greatly disappointed him, he says on the phone, and he is keen to tell his side of the story. ‘Come over.’

A few days later, I walk through Paris’ calm 13th arrondissement to a small apartment building with a front garden. Only after three calls is there an answer. The same voice, even softer and slower than on the phone, sounds through the intercom. ‘Excuse me, I was asleep.’ The writer opens the door, hair tousled, on slippers and dressed in a pair of morose deep blue pyjamas whose top three buttons are undone, revealing some chest hair. The room is simple: a window overlooking a courtyard garden, a large desk with a computer, a clock, a couple of cupboards that are empty except for some books and assorted medicine packaging. And a large overturned bed with purple-blue sheets on which he flops down, his back against the end, one leg folded under the other. Next to the bed is a chair. ‘Sit down,’ he says. ‘A glass of wine, water perhaps?’ Bed and chair are separated by a low cupboard, on which sits a glass with a bottom of red wine, a half-full ashtray and more boxes of medicine. Next to the writer a packet of cigarettes and a folder of papers about the court case. It is warm.

In this working flat, which Houellebecq has had since 2017, he wrote his novels Serotonin and Destroy. Vernietigen, published in Dutch translation last month, is about a couple who rediscover the other after a long marriage. Later, Houellebecq will tell how Prudence, the wife of protagonist Paul Raison, was inspired by Trinity from the film The Matrix. And how Bercy, the futuristic Ministry of Economy where Raison works, has always fascinated him. Bruno Le Maire, the economy minister, is a friend of his. He too was an inspiration.

The matter must be high on your mind that you yourself picked up the phone to call a journalist in the Netherlands.
‘It wasn’t. I was mostly fed up with the fact that my opponent could speak out anywhere and I couldn’t.’

Which is quite an exaggeration; it was not only Ruitenbeek who made himself heard in recent weeks. Houellebecq wrote a factual account that appeared in the French weekly Le Point and had himself interviewed by telephone by NRC and Trouw just before the verdict.

He looks ahead when he speaks and takes so much time that it seems like there is an echo on the line. Ideally, he wants to go over the whole issue again.

He tells how Ruitenbeek contacted him via e-mail. How they found each other in a shared love for science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft. Ruitenbeek sent him films of his work, which Houellebecq says he has not seen. ‘So many people send me stuff: manuscripts, but also music and films. I can’t possibly watch everything.’ He also says he did not watch Honeypot until much later. ‘Repulsive. That poor boy, crying on the phone because he didn’t want to participate.’

In September 2022, Ruitenbeek – Houellebecq likens it to Rwietenbeek – emailed a proposal. Kirac would organise a theatrical spectacle at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, inspired by Houellebecq. Participants would wear costumes from Lovecraft’s universe. Whether Houellebecq wanted to perform the opening by cutting a ribbon.

The writer sat up: ‘That intrigued me.’

Do you often cut ribbons?
‘I had never been asked before. I said I would come.’

But first, then, Ruitenbeek came to Paris, where he had to be anyway to film gangbangs that Jini van Rooijen, a friend of his, wanted to record there for her OnlyFans account, a paid online platform.

You knew about those gangbangs before he came?
‘Yes, though I only half-believed it. It seemed a bit idiotic to come to Paris for that.’

Because gangbangs can also be filmed in Amsterdam?
‘Exactly. He obviously wanted to placate me by bringing an easy girl who might want sex. I wasn’t against that idea beforehand.’

They would dine in celebration, the two Dutchmen plus Houellebecq and his wife, Lysis Li, whom he married in 2018. Houellebecq dropped out at the last minute, not feeling well. Over dinner, Lysis Li suggested the idea of filming porn scenes with Van Rooijen, Houellebecq and herself. It would cheer up the depressed writer.

So your wife came home from dinner and suggested making a sex film?
‘That’s how it was.’

And you thought that was a good idea?
‘Yes, but I wanted there to be doubt about who was doing the sex scenes. We would wear masks.’

Two hours were filmed, Houellebecq says. After filming, he maintained doubt: it would be too easy to recognise that body of his. He refused to give a copy of his passport, required to feature on OnlyFans. Consequently, the film could not be released, leaving Van Rooijen with no income from it.

Then you actually profited from her?
A long silence. ‘That is true. But saying I profited also means she didn’t enjoy it. She sent me an email later saying it was so nice, she was ecstatic.’

Was this a trap by Kirac to get you into a porn film?
‘I don’t know. From Ruitenbeek’s side, yes. From Jini, I can’t say. She must have thought I would attract many visitors to her OnlyFans.’

The Houellebecq couple’s relations with Ruitenbeek were still good then. So good that they agreed to his proposal to come to Amsterdam, where there would be all kinds of girls who wanted to share the bed with the famous writer.

Arriving at this point in the story, there is something Houellebecq likes to say: his wife had written a screenplay for an erotic film based on one of his books. Ruitenbeek said he found it interesting and sent photos of girls who could feature in it. About the screenplay, Houellebecq says: ‘When you read it, it looks like a mess, but in her head it is much less so. My wife is Chinese, her French is not perfect.’

You apparently fancied that Amsterdam adventure. On 25 November, you sent Ruitenbeek an e-mail saying: ‘I’ll fuck all the girls you introduce me to, to the best of my ability.’
‘That’s right, yes.’

On 21 December, the Houellebecq couple arrives in Amsterdam. The reception goes differently than expected; Ruitenbeek and a cameraman wait for the couple at the Thalys with the camera running.

According to Ruitenbeek, your wife said she knew about this and had therefore made herself beautiful beforehand.
‘She didn’t tell me that and I didn’t see her do that. I found that reception very unpleasant.’

We come to the crucial moment: signing the contract.
‘How that went, I can show you,’ says the writer. He saunters to his computer, finds a video after a long search. It shows the writer lying on a hotel bed, his wife sitting next to him. The atmosphere is laughing and uncomfortable. We hear Ruitenbeek explain that he added a stipulation stating that the writer and his wife are not allowed to have their genitals in the same scene. We see Houellebecq reviewing the English-language text; he inquires what fondling is. Caresser, it turns out when the French translation is brought in: caressing. Caresser? The writer has no problem with that. After three minutes, the film ends. The character session lasted eight minutes in total, there were three pages of text.

Houellebecq says he drank half a bottle of wine with his wife earlier that evening. At trial, his lawyer stressed that alcohol is poorly compatible with the antidepressants Houellebecq takes. Is the writer lucid on that film footage? As lucid as he is now, one would think. Which is a difficult state of being to determine. He sometimes seems absent-minded, but those could be thought pauses; as soon as he speaks, he is sharp and careful.

He shows another video, shot by Kirac at the restaurant they went to next. Who initiated the film, asks a member of the collective’s staff. ‘I don’t remember,’ says Lysis Li. This is remarkable, thinks the collaborator. Lysis, laughing: ‘He just wants to fuck.’ Houellebecq corrects her: ‘No, that’s not it.’

‘I can mostly see that I was very tired here,’ says the writer when the clip ends. Now that he sees the footage again, the anger resurfaces. ‘They manipulated me, made me a will-less animal.’ The effective date of the contract turns out to be 1 November 2022, so it includes the OnlyFans footage from Paris. At the time of signing, this is not pointed out. Ruitenbeek later says he told Houellebecq that in advance in an email.

Do you read contracts more often?
‘Never. This is the first one I’ve signed without being read beforehand by an agent. It’s their profession, isn’t it. Fortunately.’

He talks about his fear of tongue cancer. At music recordings in honour of French singer Daniel Darc, who died in 2013, a musician – himself an inveterate smoker – had told him he was not afraid of lung cancer, but all the more of tongue and throat cancer. Smokers would be particularly prone to it. Houellebecq decided to do something with that fact in his next book; Paul Raison, the protagonist in Destroy, will die of that disease. He went to investigate, the pictures doctors sent him have been burned into his retina ever since. ‘AIDS didn’t scare me, neither did covid. This did. I won’t lose that again. When I heard in early December that papillomavirus is a risk factor for tongue cancer and that the virus is sexually transmitted, I resolved not to have sex with strangers anymore. About the willingness to do so, I lied to Ruitenbeek.’

If you didn’t want to have sex, why did you come to Amsterdam?
‘I thought it could be an interesting film. With the use of stand-ins, and with my wife’s screenplay.’

So no sex scenes were filmed in Amsterdam?
‘No, what Ruitenbeek says about that is a lie. The scene from the trailer was nothing more than a bit of hugging, only my upper body was exposed. On top of that: the girl was not angry, but I was not attracted to her. Of another girl, my wife suspected she was a hooker. Later, when a Korean girl came who didn’t even know there would be filming, I sent Ruitenbeek away. I should have done that earlier.’

A few weeks later – Houellebecq was in Guadeloupe for film shoots – a technician inquired: have you seen this? It turned out to be the trailer with which Kirac announced a porn film featuring Houellebecq.

‘My wife in particular found it shocking, because the voice-over says we were going on our honeymoon to Morocco and that she would arrange hookers for me there. Come on: we have been married for four years, there was no question of hookers; it was a book promotion trip that ended up not going ahead because the French authorities feared for my safety.’

The couple requested Kirac to take the trailer offline and started a lawsuit first in France, then in the Netherlands to stop further use of film material. He says that some friends, especially from conservative Catholic circles, no longer want to see him because of the announcement of a porn film.

But earlier you yourself directed La Rivière, a porn film with only women. Did they mind that less?
For the first time, he laughs. ‘That one is 20 years old, back then I didn’t have any Catholic friends.’

Was the Dutch judge’s verdict a surprise?
‘Um… yes.’

At which point Houellebecq lashes out at Ruitenbeek’s lawyer, who, according to him, gave a speech full of distortions and lies that made the judge cringe. His interpretation of the novels Elementary particles and The Map and the Field particularly angered him. The lawyer had said that the main characters in them closely resemble the writer, thus allowing Houellebecq to vacillate between fiction and reality, as Kirac often does.

For the first time, the writer raised his voice: ‘I have never read anything so stupid. As if I’m not writing novels but talking about myself all the time.’ Furious qualifications follow, which he later downplays, fearing repercussions in court. ‘Forget what I said about the lawyer. Forget also what I said about him afterwards. At best you can write that I have heard wiser things about my novels.’

Could the Kirac affair affect your writing?
Again that silence. ‘There’s something interesting about it. Like that OnlyFans thing I didn’t know about. And the fact that everything in life is spied on and recorded, not just by the police. In which Kirac’s strategy is to insult people in order to get through to them, a bit like the surrealists did.’

With your radical statements, you also upset quite a few people yourself.
I say the things I think. That’s not to shock, I’d rather people said: maybe he’s not entirely wrong when he claims that Islam can be a danger or that it’s not a good idea to criminalise prostitution…’

… or states that Trump was a good president.
‘I knew that statement would not please a lot of people. I have polemical views now. What interests me is that he is the first US president in a long time not to have started a war. Then France cannot be dragged into it either.’

A spring shower clatters on the bushes of the courtyard garden. Not a good time to leave. A glass of wine, then? The writer walks to the kitchenette, returns with an open bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and crawls back into bed. In Serotonin, Houellebecq has the protagonist say that the Netherlands is not a country, but a company. Has the appearance of Kirac, who increases his fame by hitching a ride with the famous writer, strengthened him in that conviction?

There is no direct answer. Houellebecq explains that that characterisation comes from Dutch filmmaker Erik Lieshout, who captured an encounter with singer Iggy Pop for To Stay Alive – A Method: ‘Next to him, I feel so humble.’ Again he walks over to his computer. Pop’s bronze voice fills the room: A Machine for Loving, a song about his dog Fox, immediately replaced by another identical one after his death. Houellebecq looks fascinated at the kaleidoscopic patterns on the screen. He shrugs, again.

What is a dog but a machine for loving
You introduce him to a human being giving him the mission to love
And however ugly, perverse, deformed or stupid this human being might be
The dog loves him, the dog loves him

When Pop falls silent, the screensaver becomes visible: Clément, the writer’s corgi, who died in 2011.

Houellebecq does not want to make a photo appointment. ‘I’m in bad shape, I don’t want to see myself like this. I hardly sleep, can’t think about anything else. Find a photo from just before this condition.’

Whether he will appeal the verdict, he does not yet know. He has little faith in a higher court. We agree to call when the decision is made.

His agent has convinced him that it is useful, Houellebecq tells me a few days later. In the meantime, he says he has found the energy to put this sombre histoire in writing. He plans to combine the Kirac affair with another recent controversy. In an interview with philosopher Michel Onfray, published in the conservative magazine Front Populaire, Houellebecq had said that the French people do not want Muslims to adapt, but that they should stop muggings and violence or else better leave. In that interview, he also predicted a reverse ‘Bataclan’, a terrorist attack on Muslims. ‘Those were very stupid, offensive statements,’ he now thinks. ‘That was really my mistake. I made excuses. To what I meant to say I want to come back.’

The appeal is due on 18 April. Whether he will attend the hearing this time? He doubts it. ‘It will make a good impression if I do. But it will be hard to see Ruitenbeek again.’ The actor Gérard Depardieu, a close friend of Houellebecq, has offered to come along. That would help, says the writer.