This film is terrifyingly humbling, sexually polite and bravely mundane in its philosophical exploration of the fragility pervading human love. It is packed with the warmth of the everyday trials of love and passion.
This film, directed by Oskar Roehler, follows Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Les particules élementaires (Atomised), published in 1998 – a provocative erotic novel which won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2002.
As with Houellebecq’s philosophical novel, Roehler’s film pursues the personal histories of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, through their experiences of love and religion. It presents a cross-section of their lives from the vantage point of their respective mid-life sufferings. Given the nature of the modern atomized society, the film questions the meaningless pursuit of love for Michel and Bruno. After their birth to a deranged, cult-dwelling, sexually liberated mother – typifying the ideals of the hip 1960s lifestyle – Bruno becomes a libertine, Michel a molecular biologist. Through tragically amusing life episodes of masturbatory fantasies, failed sexual endeavours, inevitably disastrous relationships, joining spiritual-sexual cults, scientific rationalism and the irrationality of cultish personalities, the novel and film have both philosophically re-evaluated the chaos and irrationality inherent to the contemporary world.
Before watching the film, I heard an interview on Radio 4 in which Tim Lott optimistically exposed how the film diverged from the book, depicting “the triumph of love”, being “good natured”, “lacking in shock value” and not to mention “the end of the book was rewritten.” His message seemed to be: it deviates from the book but not necessarily for the worse. Having now watched the film, I tend to agree. The film diverges from the book to produce a distinct and humbling tale on the fragile nature of human love.
When I first heard the book was in preparation for a film-production, I despaired. It was to be directed by Oskar Roehler. How could it be possible? The methodology of the novel switches between the totalizing and fragmentary histories of Bruno and Michel exploring their tenuous links with social and sexual realities. How can this be achieved in film? I recall that Amores Perros (2000) beautifully delivered this fragmentary effect in a Mexico City tripartite story climaxing and coming together in a horrific car accident – but this original script was intended for cinema. I was sure that the adaptation of Houellebecq’s novel would prove to be difficult, possibly disastrous. The director knew of the difficulties in his task. “We had to figure out what the characters were going through without giving the whole thing too negative a flavour. If you are going to make a film you should at least try to portray some passion for life”, said Roehler to Picturehouse cinemas.
After walking from the cinema, still in rapture with the film, I began to think of Tim Lott’s ruminations expressed earlier on Radio 4. He believed that the film had almost been “Hollywoodized.” I can agree with him to some extent. The tale of sexual misadventure was portrayed as the ageing fragility of human love, the cold and grave overtones of Houellebecq’s characters are replaced with the pop classics such as Don McLean’s American Pie, the music of T-Rex and the Rolling Stones. Then, the original gothic cynical comedy in the book transform into light-hearted jaunts at Bruno’s Neanderthal-libertine outlook … However, these are not criticisms. They are a cause for celebration since this peculiar tale of two half-brothers, offering a cross-section of their mid-life love crises, is an amazing and refreshing insight into the chaotic, the humanity, the passion, the love and the death inherent to everyday human experience.
The storyline clearly attaches itself to a doctrine of Freudian conservatism. Possibly enlightened by Freudian insights that childhood development in the first five years of life later determine our subsequent experiences and that our adulthood neuroses are traceable to stages of early psychosexual development, much of this film is obsessed with that skeletal plotline. In real life, both Houellebecq and Roehler were rejected by their mother’s and placed within the care of their grandmother’s so an important place has been given in the film to how important the nuclear family really is, and the disastrous consequences that ensue after its fragmentation. It is deeply “conservative” as such since it imagines that the original attachments of Bruno and Michel were distorted in childhood, leading them to a fate of failed sexual endeavours and an isolated outlook. The breakdown of the nuclear family inevitably led to their disastrous sexual relationships and future lives. In the film, this is portrayed in several scenes, particularly as the drunk son, Bruno curses his dying mother on her deathbed for what he witnesses in childhood as her sluttish hippy abandonment of the family.
The entire plot – from start to finish – is caught up in a Sophoclean fatalist tragedy in which Michel conquers the inheritance of scientific rationalism. (Since Michel works as a molecular biologist in both German and Irish scientific laboratories during the film, the majority of the film appears in spoken German with English subtitles but on location in Ireland, he is filmed speaking English). Through his calculations at a biological laboratory in Ireland, Michel proves the possibility and practice of artificial reproduction which will lead to the progress of the human species. The film’s tendency to dwell on the fatalism of the characters does not suppress the humanity or chaotic indeterminateness of their lives. As with John Steinbeck’s novels, through introducing the character’s to unbearable social ruts in which to live, it is always clear that something has to give or break down – including Bruno’s sanity or Michel’s continued virginity. As a trial on the fragile conditions of everyday human love and the dilapidated standpoint of rational man, I would recommend this film to those with a bent for the bizarre.