EW, 2023-04-23

Rechtszaak om seksende Houellebecq is als een Kirac-film, ‘maar dan live’

EW, Jeroen Coelen, 2023 April 23

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

Lawsuit over sexing Houellebecq is like a Kirac film, ‘but live’

Last week, French writer Michel Houellebecq’s lawsuit against art collective Kirac was filed over an art film in which he has sex but regrets it. Kirac watcher Jeroen Coelen was there and reports for EW Podium.

Between the white marble walls of the Amsterdam court of justice on Tuesday 18 April, a tense group of people stand before a closed courtroom door. For many, this is the first court case they are attending, but that is not the reason for the tension. Michel Houellebecq, the great French writer of the moment, is demanding that the latest film by Stefan Ruitenbeek and his film collective Kirac (Keeping It Real Art Critics) should not be shown. The film contains footage of Houellebecq having sex. Even though this was agreed in advance in a contract, Houellebecq feels framed and does not want the film to be released.


Ruitenbeek, dressed in a neatly tailored baby blue suit, welcomes everyone personally and talks animatedly to his supporters. He does not seem to suffer from the tension, and looks cheerful. That is, paradoxically, because personal bankruptcy is looming, the filmmaker explains to me later in the day. And that calms him down, in an already fairly tumultuous period.

Besides earlier court cases in France and the Netherlands, won by Kirac in both countries, the conflict was also settled through the media. In Spanish, German and Dutch newspapers and online on Vice, both sides eagerly did their story. It was akin to an old-fashioned polemic. Columnists made a case for the film, or not. One thing is certain: it is a controversial issue.


Kirac holds up a mirror to society around contemporary issues, but not without consequences. Controversy is seen as Kirac’s trademark. In 2021, controversy arose over a Kirac film in which the ‘right-wing’ Sid Lukkassen would have sex with the ‘left-wing’ philosopher Jini van Rooijen ‘to counter polarisation in the Netherlands’. At the film’s premiere, artist Julian Andeweg, who just had a me-too scandal on his hands at the time, was carried in on a horse with the aim of ‘un-cancelling’ him.

While some see Kirac’s creations as provocations, the film collective itself refers to them as ‘performances’. But for many, it went too far. Last year, Kirac was allowed to hold an exhibition and premiere at the art academy in Ghent, but the invitation was criticised by an organisation against sexual violence: Kirac would glorify a rape culture. The board of the Ghent academy gave in to the criticism. At an event with Kirac at de Balie in Amsterdam, an action group used a similar argument. And earlier, the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam cancelled a debate with Kirac.


Kirac seems to regularly wreak havoc expertly. Dislocated campuses, cancelled events, fuss surrounding Sid Lukkassen and now a court case involving a French novelist. Yet at this appeal in the Amsterdam court, about 50 Kirac fans sat in the public galleries. What is the attraction to Kirac after all?

Last year, I set off with about 50 others on a bus trip organised by Kirac to the – eventually cancelled – event in Ghent. I spoke to curious, inquisitive and art-minded people in their twenties and thirties. Definitely not radicals. At the Amsterdam court, I encountered people of the same ilk. On the one hand, many denied being driven by anything sensational. But wasn’t it just a school trip with Kirac-adepts as disaster tourists in the courtroom? Everyone I spoke to was at least as interested in the substance of the case. Above all, they wondered about the motives of both sides, and the limits of art and an artist’s freedoms. Questions that often recur in Kirac’s works.


Despite the fact that this following was overwhelmingly in the Kirac camp, the same attendees told us they were also fans of Houellebecq. Unfortunately for them, the novelist was not present. At the beginning of his lawyer’s plea, we hear the writer sitting at home, embarrassed by the case. While waiting for the outcome, he drinks and smokes on the go. Fans of Houellebecq will not necessarily notice any aberrant behaviour in the latter.

The lawyer argues for “neighbouring rights” (a kind of copyright) of Houellebecq as a performer: after all, he played a role in the film. Is that really the case? Participants in a documentary are not actors, Kirac reasons. A documentary is a copyright work, says Ruitenbeek’s lawyer, because there is creativity involved in choosing which images make it to the final cut.


The judge examines this boundary: somewhere in the footage, Houellebecq puts on a wolf mask. Can we see that as an act of creativity? Part of the audience laughs, the judge holds himself stiff. The wolf mask was only to hide his identity, responds Kirac’s lawyer. Important for Houellebecq, who had it stipulated in a contract that his head and genitals would not be on screen at the same time. Houellebecq wanted to be able to claim afterwards that it was not him having sex in the images. This covered the risks for him.

After the trailer came online earlier this year, Houellebecq changed his mind: the entire film should be banned. No intimate scene should be released, Houellebecq argues, regardless of whether his head or genitals are in the picture. During the hearing, the judge steers for a compromise: can these intimate scenes be removed from the film?


Ruitenbeek’s lawyer laughingly responds: is sitting on the bed together intimate? Is kissing intimate? Or is intimacy only when penetrating? The audience laughs because of this Kafkaesque attempt to define ‘intimate’ – a heroic task, given the distance between two parties.

Or is this just a game of both parties? Both Ruitenbeek and Houellebecq indicated in the media that they will take this case into account in their current and future works. In that case, the case about a work of art turns into a work of art itself.

Houellebecq’s lawyers underline Kirac’s modus operandi in their plea: the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred. In this way, Kirac creates ambiguity. It is precisely this ambiguity that many find so charming about Kirac’s works. The viewer is forced to take a stand, which is not always easy. Such is the case with this trial. A spectator reflects afterwards: this court case is like a Kirac film, but live.

In any case, the judge has not yet taken a stand, for instance on the legality of the contract that had been entered into. First the bet is on a compromise. Houellebecq has to travel to Amsterdam for this in the near future. If there is no settlement, the Amsterdam court will make a ruling on 16 May.