NRC, 2023-04-02

Houellebecq zegt ‘sekstape’, KIRAC zegt ‘kunstfilm’

Gawie Keyser, NRC, 2023 April 2

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

Houellebecq says ‘sex tape’, KIRAC says ‘art film’

Sex film Michel Houellebecq might have known: sex plus film gives thunder, writes Gawie Keyser.

Michel Houellebecq’s erotic antics are world news at the hands of art collective KIRAC, which got the French writer to make love to several women while the camera records everything. The great Houellebecq. In a ‘sex film’. A what? Exactly.

What are we talking about when we say ‘sex film’? Porn or performance art? Other possibilities do exist, judging by the details of the case in which Houellebecq is as yet unsuccessfully litigating against distribution of the images. KIRAC claims to have made an “art film” in which the line between fact and fiction is blurred, as it would be unclear whether it is really Houellebecq having sex.

Sex on film – in English are also commonly called a blue movie or a skin flick or simply a porno. In the Houellebecq case, ‘sex movie’ is the most commonly used word with us. You can also say, ‘erotic film’ and ‘sex tape’ or ‘sex video’, but then the meaning changes. In the first case, we are talking about artistically responsible, invariably controversial attempts to depict eroticism in narrative form, for example Adrian Lyne’s film 9½ Weeks (1986) with Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger. In the second case, we get into trickier territory. Then it involves privately recorded, illegally distributed footage, as happened in the mid-1990s with the sex tape of Pamela Anderson and her husband Tommy Lee.

This is how this situation unfolds: Houellebecq says ‘sex tape’; KIRAC says ‘art film’; we say ‘sex film’.

The writer is in a bind because he knows what happens once the images go out into the world. When the Pamela sex tape was first massively physically copied and then hit the internet, slutshaming inevitably followed, and Anderson’s career was never the same after that. Houellebecq can already see the hang of it. He revealed, “I have already lost friends, from the Catholic right in France. I haven’t heard a word from them. I am like a pariah.”

Houellebecq’s problem lies in the word itself. ‘Sex tape’ suggests porn. Plausibly, he is aware that ‘porn’ has long since ceased to imply exclusively professionally shot films with actors and actresses, but that it is precisely sex images of ordinary people like him that are doing well in the porn industry, hence his deep concerns.

On the other hand – this might have been a cop-out for the writer – you could say that KIRAC did not make a ‘sex film’, but a documentary about politics and sex with forays into the genre of performance art. Had Houellebecq embraced this idea, and if you read his books this is by no means inconceivable, we would now have a different conversation, one around the word ‘art film’ or perhaps ‘philosophical sex satire’.

Funny but also tragic is that Houellebecq, like philosopher Sid Lukkassen, who previously had a similar standoff with KIRAC following the film Honeypot in which he tries to have sex with a young woman philosophy student, got cold feet afterwards. The lesson they both learned seems to be: those who have sex on camera find themselves in a sex film. And whichever way you look at it, history teaches, sex plus film makes: thunder.