CULTS, CLONES AND CONTROVERSY: French Author Michel Houellebecq Directs his existential first feature THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND

July 23rd, 2009 15:01:00

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Showcased as part of Fantasia's Cerebral Sci-Fi Spotlight Series, controversy-courting French author Michel Houellebecq (EXTENSION DU DOMAINE DE LA LUTE; THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES) has directed a handful of short films (DESEQUILIBRES (1982); LA RIVIERE (2001), but THE POSSIBIILITY OF AN ISLAND is his first feature, based on his polemical 2005 book of the same name. The existential, alienation-fuelled science fiction novel has as many champions as detractors (one famous champion being Iggy Pop, who recently put out an album called PRÉLIMINAIRES, based on the book).

The book's title comes from a line of poetry by Spanish poet, playwright, filmmaker (VIVA LA MUERTE) Fernando Arrabal - a pivotal collaborator of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roland Topor and Andre Breton - and shares Arrabal’s interest in apocalyptic religious imagery (Arrabal also appears briefly in the film). In 2000 Houellebecq wrote the short story LANZAROTE, which was the first to acknowledge his growing thematic interest in peripheral religious groups and cult leaders. And this is where our story begins.

The film opens with a preacher from a fringe religion proselytizing to a handful of disinterested listeners (the second time in this year’s festival that Corinthians 13:11 is used in a film, the other being Sion Sono's LOVE EXPOSURE), collecting piddly donations to finance his trip throughout the countryside spreading the word. His son Daniel (Benoît Magimel, THE PIANO TEACHER) sits outside handling the collections as his father – soon to be known as 'the Prophet' - lectures about the infinite possibilities we have as humans - for communication, for spiritual evolution, for eternal life. But eternal life - which we only know through sci-fi or vampire fiction – is always represented as a solitary existence, physically and spiritually stunted, with no hope of real communication.

The preacher himself believes that God is dead, that people have nothing to believe in. But we cannot resign ourselves to death, we are waiting for something to replace the void left by the absence of god. For this sect - based directly on the Raelian Movement - it's extraterrestrials, and immortality through cloning.

The film jumps ahead three years later. The sect has multiplied to 80,000 members in 64 countries. Large institutions are devoted to recruiting and educating their followers. A professor, the chief scientific designer in the sect, gives a lecture on how humans will evolve to point where they can be self-sufficient, living as plants, with only water and sunlight for sustenance. Soon they will move to a remote island, to prepare for the final stages of their transformation.

Daniel travels to the island where his Jodorowsky-like father (Patrick Bauchau) has been leading his sect in seclusion for the past two years . Comically, much of the island is devoted to a resort - most people go to there for pre-packaged holidays, for the amateur poolside beauty contests. Meanwhile on the other side of the island, in a labyrinthine cluster of caves, the sect grows. The chief scientific designer is working away on advanced cloning technology: each new follower has their brain recorded in a backup on a giant computer, so that after death they can be reprogrammed into a new organism. The Prophet is dying, and, after having a vision about the end of the world, has summoned Daniel to be his successor.

Daniel is conflicted. Despite his lack of patience with his father’s spiritual concerns, he too believes that death and dying have come to be acknowledged as a factor in the human condition, but that they are not necessary - in fact, they are just 'technical problems'. But if cloning is successful, with all memories intact, how are they escaping a human conditioned that is coloured by the fear of death? Perhaps the next generation, the children of the clones with no ingrained memory of death, will have it easier.

"Mankind had to fulfill it violent destiny until the final destruction," offers the voiceover. The film's landscape is littered with amazing ruins, dilapidated industrial structures meant to be the wasteland after the apocalypse, which the clones, or neo-humans, survived. As with the book, the narrative alternates between the perspective of different characters: Daniel and his clone, Neo-Daniel (in the book there are two clones – which also calls to mind another film in this year's festival, the melancholy Japanese film THE CLONE RETURNS HOME). Daniel’s clone exists in an isolated bubble after the world – a respiring, womb-like cave where he spends his days alone, poring over the diary of the man whose likeness he was created in. Lonely and primitive, its imagery recalls the last act of Jodorowky's EL TOPO, but there will be no accolades for this mole when he emerges from his dark hollow.

- Kier-La Janisse

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THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND has its North American Premiere at Fantasia on Thursday July 23 at 10:00pm and again Wednesday July 28th at 9:45pm, both in the Salle JA de Seve.

Full details, including description, images, trailer, website and more on the film page HERE.


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