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The outsiderMichel Houellebecq is a bestseller and a troublemaker. He is attacked as a pornographer and adored as a prescient genius. A stunned liberal establishment has no idea how to take him. “Perhaps he should be dead,” says his friend, the novelist Frédéric Beigbeder. “If I had had a childhood like him I would have killed myself. He is a zombie back from the dead and telling us what it is like.” How could I make a film about a novelist who does sex scenes where women are crippled by savage sex, in whose novels the female characters all end up dead or damaged, who propositions every female journalist sent to do a piece on him, whose heavy drinking and depression, by all accounts, reduce him to near-coma for weeks at a time? Why would I want to make a film about a man in whose first novel (Whatever) the central character urges his friend to indulge in the pleasures of sexual murder, and whose second (Atomised) proposes that the freedoms of the 60s brought us nothing but misery and that the solution to our misery is to clone a new species that lives in permanent orgasm. I suppose I started to recognise that the female characters in his books are the most emotionally whole; the only ones able to love are the women. July 2001: “Don’t book into the hotel. You must stay at my house,” Houellebecq says down the phone. I book into the hotel. When I arrive at his isolated house, on an island off the west coast of Ireland, at about 3pm, Houellebecq emerges dishevelled. He is small and thin and dressed entirely in orange. He has thin, sandy hair that sticks up. As he turns away I realise that it is an expensive implant; the tufts are formed in little straight lines across the back of his head, like a doll’s. “I’ve been asleep,” he says. “Would you like something to drink?” He has a strange sideways walking motion. He holds his cigarette between his third and fourth nicotine-stained fingers. I follow as he drifts into a darkened room. It’s his bedroom; I back out. He smiles at me as he retrieves cigarettes and a whisky glass and moves next door to a room with a skin-coloured leather sofa. We drink and talk – about religion, and science, and what he calls “the suicide of the west”, and the film I want to make, until 3am. I’m not sure how I get back to the hotel. We meet again the next afternoon and agree that the film will go ahead. I will return to Ireland in the summer to film him at home and then go to the Canary Islands to film him looking for locations for the movie of his next book, which is about sex tourism. “Gran Canaria is where the English go for sex; we will find swingers. My friend told me of the club we must stay at.” I leave with a sense of failure. He has not passed out in a drunken coma, nor propositioned me. He has been fascinating and viciously funny. He has giggled and played with his dog. His wife has been beautiful and kind. He did show me a movie he had just made – commissioned by the French media company Canal Plus – on the subject of erotica. It seemed more like soft porn, and starred his wife. “I don’t find it pornographic at all,” he said. I think he was serious. September 4: “We must cancel everything; no book signings, no public parties, no interviews,” says Houellebecq’s press officer. “For his safety he must stay in his hotel room. You should go home; there will be nothing to film.” I have just walked into the offices of Flammarion, Houellebecq’s publishers, before a week’s filming in Paris following the launch of his latest book, Platforme. His books always cause outrage. They are loved and hated in equal measure. But his talent for causing trouble has backfired badly on him this time. Platforme is a story of love between two people who set up a sex-tourism resort. The central character, as ever called Michel, loses his lover in an Islamic terrorist attack. France’s leading literary critic has put an unexpected boot in: “Houellebecq’s new book may win the Prix Goncourt… but is a prize worth a fatwa?” In July, Houellebecq gave an interview to the literary magazine Lire, and the journalist picked up on the central character’s hatred for Islam. It seemed that the author agreed with his character, or was he just winding us up? September 5: In the corridor of a TV studio, Houellebecq’s press officer chain-smokes and pops the anxiety-relieving drug Xanax. Her author, incapable of compromise and incapable of protecting himself or us from how he sees the truth, may be about to go too far again. The Arab League has issued a press statement condemning Houellebecq. “Let’s hope it stops here,” she says with a tight smile. Houellebecq emerges from make-up look ing uncomfortable. He is tiny and alone in the crowd of 30 press photographers, each yelling for his attention. As he signs autographs, another small man appears at his shoulder and urges quietly in his ear: “You absolutely must keep writing. Don’t give up. It’s important for all of us.” “I will try,” murmurs Houellebecq as he hands a signed book back to a statuesque blonde woman. The TV show goes fairly well, or badly, depending on who you are: Houellebecq doesn’t say anything appalling; he drinks, but only water; he doesn’t get angry or walk out. He seems almost timid. The various experts around the table are thrown by his lucidity, his calm defence of what his characters say and their right to express themselves. He is brighter than all of them and has seen the way we are more clearly than them. The crazier the hysteria around him, the more his ideas seem deadly correct. In the green room I find myself standing beside Will Self, on tour with his own book. He didn’t want to do an interview about Houellebecq: “He’s just a little guy who can’t get enough sex. That’s it, isn’t it?” September 6: France’s national Arabic newspaper leads with the headline “This man hates you” next to a large photo of Houellebecq looking characteristically wrecked. I must film Houellebecq’s reaction. We unload the camera equipment in the street. Maybe I can get him to read the article and say what he thinks in a cafe. As I try to persuade him, out of the corner of my eye I see the sound recordist being confronted by an Arab. “Are you working with that bastard Houellebecq?” “No, no… who? Houellebecq?” “Well he’s standing right there!” “Oh… is that Houellebecq? Oh no, he’s nothing to do with us.” We do a quick interview in the crew car. “It’s OK; they say everyone has to pray for my soul, so I’m saved,” he says, deadpan. “I’m a bit worried about the photo, though; it’s not very…” He trails away. The police have advised caution; there will be no more appearances in public. Houellebecq will leave Paris as soon as possible for his own safety. Fnac, a major French book chain, hosts its annual bestseller awards. Houellebecq is top of the list, but the Islam question has weakened his chances despite the fact that he has beaten every other book of the season by miles. And he’s not allowed to leave his hotel room. We must do an interview this evening before he leaves Paris. The press officer can’t find Houellebecq. There’s no answer when I call his room. Will I knock on his door? He is dishevelled, nervously twisting bits of hair implant. He wraps his shirt tightly round him, retreats back on to his bed, and motions me to follow. “Will you call the police for me in Ireland – my wife has disappeared.” I spend the next hours on the phone to Ireland issuing a missing-person description. He cannot remember the registration of his car. We phone all the hotels in Dublin, all the hospitals. The crew waits in the bar. How can I do an interview in this situation? “Will you buy me a bottle of whisky? Jack Daniels.” I dash to the nearest off-licence, telling the crew what’s happening and asking them to wait just in case he will do an interview. We’re sitting on his bed now. “Louise, you can film me if you like,” he says. “But I don’t want to spend the night alone.” I’m saved by the ringing of the phone. I make an excuse and go to get the crew. The phone rings again. It’s his wife. “She’s alive, she’s alive,” he shouts, and bursts into tears. Houellebecq says he will never do another interview, and that – although he’ll continue to write – he won’t publish another book again. It’s too much trouble. · The Trouble With Michel is on BBC4 at 9pm tonight.

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