Sunday, July 16, 2006

ATOMISED - the castration of a novel that looks better by comparison

ATOMISED is a German adaptation of French author, Michel Houellebecq's, acclaimed novel. It focuses on two half-brothers - Bruno and Michel. Both were abandoned by their mother - a selfish hippie - and were raised by their repective grandmothers. Bruno had a horrific childhood, abandoned and sexually abused, he comforted himself with food. In this modern era, where beauty and youth are rewarded by sexual fulfillment, poor fat Bruno was condemned to a life of voyuerism and onanism. He is stuck in a dead-end teaching job, married to a physically unattractive woman, rejected even by students he lusts after and allowed only to vent his spleen in racist rants too politically incorret to publish. In the novel, Bruno finds a brief moment of happiness with a sexually adventurous woman called Christiane who, like Bruno, frankly appreciates that in modern society a woman of her age cannot hope for love - only one-night stands.

Bruno's half brother Michel had, by contrast, a happy childhood with his loving grandmother. A maths prodigy, Michel never brought himself to kiss the exceptionally beautiful young girl who was in love with him, Annabelle. In adulthood, Michel becomes a fantastically successful scientist, but one day he simply leaves his job and enters a funk - living on cheap meals from Monoprix and not quitting the apartment for days on end. Eventually, he too will make a connection of sorts with Annabelle, and conclude his scientific work in Ireland.

But this is just a sort of plot outline through character. The real meat of the novel is the subjects it tackles: the selfishness of the hippie culture; the tragedy of the modern free-market in sex where the old and ugly are perpetual losers; the alienation of man in modern society; the logical conclusion of the separation of sex and procreation; the difficulty of finding a connection with another person....

Like I said, I found the novel too nihilistic, self-satisfied and pretentious for my taste. But there is no doubting its scope, ambition and imaginative use of structure. The film, by contrast, is a petty and limiting affair. Where there was once an attempt at an incisive philosophical discourse, we now have a hackneyed love story. Where there were acres of badly-written sex scenes, we now have the odd shot of a chick in PVC boots. (ooh! How daring!) And don't get me started on the syrupy ending. It seems that on every level, German writer-director Oskar Röhler has neutered Michel Houellebecq's novel. ATOMISED may have been an bitter, angry, adolescent novel, but at least it had character and held your interest. Better an attention-seeking howl than this flaccid mess.

ATOMISED/ELEMENTARTEILCHEN opened in Germany in February 2006, Italy in April and is currently playing in the UK. It opens in France on August 30th and the Netherlands on October 5th.

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