Beauvois and Saintliness, Houellebecq and the Devil ; Van Gogh and His Actors ( The Huffington Post 2010/09/29)

logo huffingtonXavier Beauvois is a friend. In my mind, he is even one of the very few who, once, nearly fifteen years ago, was involved (without ever having renounced it) in the adventure of my film, Le Jour et la nuit. Does that mean I should refrain from expressing how much I was moved by his own film, Des Hommes et des dieux, portraying the last days in the lives of the French monks of Tibehirine, assassinated by Islamists in 1996, in Algeria? Nevertheless, the point is not actually Algeria. In reality, it is a film that is not about Algeria, nor terrorism, nor even about this other planet-wide persecution I referred to in an interview with a Spanish daily last week, one that targets Christians. No. It is a film about saintliness. About the time of saintliness. It is a film that shows the ordinary of seven existences, seized in a time frame that is slack, almost pure, eventless, which is another name for saintliness. The approach of the killers. The waiting, more unbearable from second to second for us, the audience, and for them, the seven monks, a source of intense fervor. Their impassive faces as they share the last meal. The soul, defenseless, and yet invincible. The dying flame of a life and the chapel of rest of the heart. Doubt, sometimes. Peace, finally. The dissolving contours of thought when the final act comes and they must accept to follow the killers, their courage mixed with horror. Prayer itself, which becomes almost useless and that Beauvois, it seems to me, in any case stops filming. The slowness, especially. The earth and the sky ablaze and yet time that seems to be frozen. Rarely has a film been so very slow, so passionately and spiritually slow, and yet, made the heart beat so very fast.

Michel Houellebecq is another friend. And, not so long ago, we published a book together, Ennemis publics. Should that prevent me from expressing here, after so many others I did not wish to precede, my admiration for his latest novel, La Carte et le territoire, in which he has, to my mind, arrived at the summit of his art? The breakdown, this time, of all reverence. The mourning of all saintliness. The triumph of the mediocre, the indifferent, the neuter. Failed lives. The defeat of language as the gold standard of meaning. At the heart of the novel, the counterfeit of art, very precisely, of the narrative. And then, suddenly, two events. First of all, the Father. This strange figure of the Father, inaccessible and familiar, hidden and, nonetheless, lacking mystery. This father like an empty house with his elusive secrets, his strong-rooms open to the four winds and these mazes of ancestry which Houellebecq, for the first time, apparently wishes to concentrate on. And then he, the author, the appearance of the author himself, taken by surprise in his Irish exile, who cuts into the novel, breaks up its until-then perfectly classic trajectory and sets it off, but in a different way, on an unexpected tangent. He, Houellebecq, really? Or his double? Or the ghost of his double? Or, perhaps, a stranger, but one who, like the devil, would have taken on the appearance of this other double? You’ll see. That’s the surprise. Just be aware that death is there, as it must be, at the rendez- vous. This death that, as always, knows all the tricks, the disguises, the hiding places. This death that never catches you better than at the moment when you thought, as in this instance, that you could be more clever than he is. A great work, Gracq once said, isn’t it always a way of committing one to the grave?
Theo Van Gogh, the film maker who was stabbed and had his throat slit by an Islamist in Amsterdam in 2004, had a vision of the world and of Islam that I do not share. But in this text by him, Interview, directed by Hans Peter Cloos at the Studio des Champs-Elysées, in Paris, Patrick Mille — more than a friend, my son-in-law — plays one of the principal roles, confronting the radiant Sara Forestier. Is this a reason for me not to recommend one of the most incontestably intriguing shows of the opening of an otherwise rather dreary Parisian theatre season? A special correspondent at the end of his tether and a starlet already in dire straits. Show business. Its laws. Its rites, its burlesque altars, its cynicism, the whole sideshow. And the human, as a result, like a shipwreck that has already happened. Lives that are no long minuscule, just superfluous. Lying as second nature. The world as a consequence definitively lacking a cause. The memory of men itself that has become an aviary where vague and rare recollections (Sarajevo or a Serbian pistol at the temple for the hero, an episode from a soap opera for the heroine) collide like birds flying around in a cage. And then, here, a Freudian slip. There, a word that rings true. And there again, a sentiment that quivers, that wants to prevail. And then love, well, yes, good old love, that returns pattering softly like the footsteps of a dove and, little by little, takes over. A bizarre sort of love. A love almost homonymous with what bore that name before these times of post-humanity and their terminal thoughts. A love like a martial art. A love like a defeat anticipated by each one. A love where one makes sure he doesn’t show his cards until he is very certain that he no longer has a winning hand. But finally, love, all the same, with its devouring words, its voice from the gut, and its leaps of the heart. Things go badly. One senses the risk of death that may, once again, win out. But if we seek the exact image of how the religion of nihilism has changed us all slightly, it is there. And one recalls Sade’s words, « If aetheism is looking for martyrs, it has only to say so, my blood is ready. »

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