NRC, 2023-03-23

Opnieuw daagt Houellebecq KIRAC voor de rechter wegens seksfilm

Tristan Theirlynck, NRC, 2023 March 23

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

Once again Houellebecq sues KIRAC over sex film

In January, nothing is happening yet. Stefan Ruitenbeek and Kate Sinha, who together form the art collective KIRAC, are talking at the kitchen table in Sinha’s home in Amsterdam, soup and a baby monitor in front of them, about their new film – a film in which Michel Houellebecq can be seen having sex with several women. The trailer is not yet out, the fuss has not yet begun, the legal battle between Ruitenbeek and Houellebecq has not yet erupted.
What exactly the film is about is still unclear. “It will be a portrait of Houellebecq, but also of myself unexpectedly becoming a father for the second time,” Ruitenbeek says. It will also be about the role of sex and love, in society and in Houellebecq’s work and life. How exactly, Sinha and Ruitenbeek do not yet know. This is how KIRAC always works; the film takes shape during the process. To (surprised) questions about whether Houellebecq is really cooperating fully in what could be seen as a porn film, Ruitenbeek responds in the affirmative. “He signed a contract. And hí wanted this. At first we just wanted to organize a symposium with him.”

This is not the first time KIRAC has run into trouble with a sex film. In October 2021, Honeypot, a film in which conservative philosopher Sid Lukkassen goes on a sex date, also caused a stir. Lukkassen felt humiliated and wanted to withdraw. The film was released anyway. A discussion ensued in the media and art world about abuse and consent: was it morally correct to distribute sex images of someone who doesn’t want it (anymore)?

This time, KIRAC tried to do everything right. There had been contact between Ruitenbeek and Houellebecq for some time. His books and philosophy had long played a role in KIRAC’s works. Occasionally Ruienbeek sent films to Houellebecq, including Honeypot. In July 2022, the seed for the Houellebecq film was born. Ruitenbeek and Sinha noticed that young (often subversive) artists in their circles admired Houellebecq. This gave rise to the idea of organizing a symposium in Amsterdam. Houellebecq saw potential; he would cut a ribbon.

When Ruitenbeek was in Paris later that year to make a film about porn actress Jini Jane, it turned out that this plan would be unfeasible. At an appointment with KIRAC, Houellebecq did not show up. Instead, Lysis Li, his wife, came. She said that Houellebecq did not see much point in the KIRAC exhibition. But, Houellebecq was up for a Honeypot-like project. “It’s definitely better to propose filming a porn scene,” she said in film footage from that evening, which was filed with the court.
A sex date is planned. Van Jane has a threesome with Houellebecq and Li – Houellebecq is wearing a wolf mask. The footage would be posted on Jane’s OnlyFans channel. But after the sex, Houellebecq refuses to send a photo of his passport, required for posting images on the platform. Jane feels used for sex, as does one of the other women in the film. Li later indicates in an email exchange with KIRAC that it would be better to arrange such matters in advance, from now on.

There will be another appointment. A stay is planned in Amsterdam (in one of the last hotel rooms where smoking is still allowed – a demand of Houellebecq’s) and several women – admirers – stop by to have sex with Houellebecq. Before filming, Houellebecq signs a contract – a standard release set up by a lawyer.

That release details Houellebecq’s terms. For example, he does not want his genitals and his face on screen at the same time. In e-mail communication with KIRAC, he explains that this would still allow him to deny being in the film. KIRAC responds, “This is a wonderful idea. If I understand correctly, your solution is to make it a work of art, in which the distinction between fiction and reality takes shape as a game with the rancorous paranoia of your enemies.”

While staying at the hotel, Houellebecq tries to steer the camera crew away. He only wants to have sex with the women without the camera. Ruitenbeek sends a message to Houellebecq that that is not the deal. “For me it is only interesting to give you lovers and girls if we can film,” he says. And, “I also don’t think it’s fair to the girls. They want to meet you and have sex with you because they are being filmed at the same time, to sublimate their adventure with you in a beautiful film.”

In February, Houellebecq took KIRAC to court. In the media and in court, he says he made a mistake. The perception arises that he was misled by a vulgar pornographer. French and Dutch media speculate whether Houellebecq took his game of provocation, with which he stays relevant, too far this time.

In the detailed e-mail contact filed with the court, a different picture seems to emerge. Not only does it seem that Houellebecq did know (or at least could have known) what he was agreeing to, but also that he was guided by lust, rather than strategy. For decades, people have wondered if the writer is like his male characters; in this turn of events – having sex with women and then failing to keep the bargain – that suspicion seems confirmed.

At the kitchen table in January, Ruitenbeek seemed to speak prophetic words when he said, “Normally people who join us are in our labyrinth. Now we are in Houellebecq’s labyrinth.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that the verdict in the trial is Monday. That was incorrect; it is Tuesday.