Porno avec les Houellebecq : au tribunal, des ébats en débat

Quentin Girard, Liberation, 2022 March 1

Original in French

Translation to English

“We are inside a work of Michel Houellebecq, we mix reality and fiction, and I’m going to put reality back”, exclaimed, “bewildered”, Virginie Tesnière at the beginning of her plea. She is the lawyer of Stefan Ruitenbeek, the director of the movie made by Keeping It Real Art Critics. It is true that the story of a white man in his sixties, a nerd in depression, who decides to go to Amsterdam with his wife to folic in a porn movie with actresses and sex workers, only to regret it and ask for the movie to be banned in front of the media uproar it provokes, looks like a scenario so typical the writer couldn’t have imagined it himself. Under his pen, we can not be sure his character would have found grace. One can imagine him rather mockingly welcoming this turn of events and writing the court chapter with relish. Only in reality, the plaintiff is Houellebecq himself. 

At the beginning of February, internet followers were amazed to discover the trailer for Kirac 27, which Michel Houellebecq had filmed with his partner, Qianyum Lysis Li, containing some sexually explicit scenes. Since then, the Dutch director behind the project, who is used to causing an uproar with his provocations, has given many interviews, in which he swears he will not back down. Houellebecq and his partner have asked for the recent trailer and the film, which is supposed to be launched on different online platforms, to be banned. Their lawsuit is based on allegations of an “invasion of privacy”, and they claim €100.000 each for moral damages, amounting to €200.000 in total. 

Wednesday morning, with the official release date of the movie (March 11th) approaching fast, the lawyers of the parties have unfolded their arguments before the judge. Michel Houellebecq and his partner were absent during these proceedings. In this particular situation, which could be described as “regret porn” – the act of creating a pornographic video and later feeling remorseful about it – the main objective was to assess how conscious and willing the partners were in the performance they took part in.

Angélique Beres, counsel for Michel Houellebecq, states that the couple “did not consent to the story” of the trailer, which recounts a cancelled trip to Morocco in search of prostitutes. that the couple had planned. “We are in the heart of privacy!” she exclaimed, “the border that should not be crossed”, even for this “free spirit”, Houellebecq, whom she describes as “varied and complex”. “It is not the existence of the film which is in question but the conditions in which the images are exploited”, she stressed. Maïa Kantor, who represented “Madame Li”, whose first name was strangely never pronounced, went further by speaking of “cataclysm”, “a before and after”. She considered that her client “had never given his agreement” and criticised the “disloyalty” of director Ruitenbeek, who would have filmed the couple without warning. “As Ruitenbeek is an artist, he believes he has the right to film in quasi-continuity and like that the work is half-documentary, half-fiction, but that should have been clearly explained before the process commenced,” she said.

“There have never been hidden cameras or stolen images,” retorted Mme. Virginie Tesnière. Recognising that her client, Stefan Ruitenbeek, was a “controversial artist, just like Michel Houellebecq”, she recalled that the essence of his art is to mix fiction and reality. Before any agreements were made, Ruitenbeek sent Houellebecq examples of his work, including ‘Honey Pot’, a previous polemical work in which a far-right politician sleeps with a left-wing student. The lawyer of the director goes so far as to state that the project was even conducted “almost at the initiatives of one of the plaintiffs, Ms. Li” To elaborate: “There is this scene, filmed in November 2022, where Mr. Ruitenbeek is filming with Ms. Li, while she states “I want to put him in a porn movie, that’s my motivation. I want him to stop being depressed and find some home, even if it’s just for once.”

Excerpts from the contract signed between the two parties, which were read at the hearing, leave little doubt about the content of the project. The Dutch filmmaker and the couple had gone so far as to negotiate the way to stage the sex. The faces and genitals of the actors and actresses were never to appear on the same plane.

We will have to await the judge’s decision to find out which of the parties has gone too far – the Houellebecqs, who, in realising their fantasy, have bitten off more than they could chew, or Ruitenbeek – with his way of filming, editing and commenting. The decision is expected to be made this Friday (March 10th, 2023). If the judge, however, does not declare herself incompetent, as the defence has invited her to do, there is a signed contract, that contains a clause that any dispute should be brought before the Amsterdam court for a final decision to be made.”