Les Particules Elémentaires

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Bruno (Moritz Bleibtreu) rants at his dying mother while his half-brother Michel (Christian Ulmen) looks on.

Les Particules Elémentaires, the controversial novel by French provocateur extraordinaire Michel Houellebecq, has been transformed into a German film, Elementareilchen, directed by Oskar Roehler.

Viewers who have never read the book may find the film bleak, if not severely depressing, but to those who have read the novel, the movie seems positively upbeat in comparison.

The tale concerns two severely damaged half-brothers, Bruno (played by the talented Moritz Bleibtreu, who won the best actor award for this role at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival) and Michael (Michel in the novel, played by Christian Ulmen). Both were abandoned by their free-loving hippie mother and raised by different grandmothers, but their reactions to their upbringing have taken them in diametrically opposed directions. The nihilistic Bruno, a frustrated writer, seeks salvation through sex, while Michael, a research scientist, completely represses his sexuality and even his humanity, seeking solace in his research on sexless reproduction.

On these points the novel and film agree, but they diverge completely when it comes to the development of the story. The extreme vitriol of Houellebecq’s formulaic novel has been toned down, leaving room for hope and even the possibility of love and salvation. The film’s ending, in fact, completely negates the nihilistic premise of the book and could even be interpreted moralistically (sex fiends will be punished; the pure will triumph).

This is one of the rare cases when I would recommend seeing the film, which is much more coherent than the novel, rather than reading the book it is based on. It views the sad lives of Bruno and Michel more through a psychological than a philosophical lens, adding a third dimension to the novel’s flat characters.

The film’s transposition of the action from France to Germany, by the way, seems perfectly plausible.

Heidi Ellison

© 2006 Paris Update

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