Originally published on the old Cinewise blog on 25th November 2010.
Michel Houellebecq’s novel was always going to be a tough adaptation, not only for its explicit sex or its angry, angular language, but also for its meandering narrative that relies on lengthy monologues and philsophical debates. So, it’s no surprise that Oskar Roehler-written-and-directed film fails on so many levels, despite featuring the creme de la creme of the current German acting talent.
Things start off on a rough ground from the very beginning: Houellebecq’s narrative and characters were very “French”, in that their lenghty discussions about Aldous Huxley’s influence on the counter-culture of the late ’60s over bottles of fine wine is the romantic francophile representation. Moving these characters to Germany takes away a lot from the story: the pastoral and urban France cannot be more different than the pastoral and urban Germany.
Michel and Bruno are two half-brothers. Neglected by their free-spirited mother, Michel (Christian Ulmen) grows up to be a Math genius, whose goal in life is to discover reproduction without the need for sex. Michel is also the epitome of an asexual being – he doesn’t care about the women that throw themselves at him, all in awe of his amazing brain. One of these girls is the ethereally beautiful Annabel (played by a miscast Franka Potente). Bruno (Moritz Bleibtreu in an amazing performance), on the other hand, can only think with his penis. His goal in life is to push the boundaries of sexual pleasure, but his attempts at satiating his lust fails him at every turn.
The dichotomy between Michel and Bruno was very succinctly portrayed in the book – despite their seemingly different outlook in life, they felt comfortable with each other. In the film, their get-togethers feel forced. This is mostly due to the fact that Bleibtreu and Ulmen feel so uncomfortable whenever they are on screen. What made these characters who they are is how they were brought up. Roehler shows snippets of their upbringing in a few flashbacks, but they feel more like afterthoughts than clues to their development.
Michel and Bruno are, frankly, despicable people, but the reasons they are who they are lie in the era that they grew up. Houellebecq’s disdain for the counterculture is nowhere to be seen in the film. Of course, Roehler probably doesn’t share Houellebecq’s political or cultural ideology (which is a good thing), but without a political or cultural context these characters are hollow, uninteresting, and unintentionally funny.
It is no surprise that Roehler struggled with democartising the narrative between the two, but Bruno emerges as the emotional core of the film (Michel is a desperately boring character, until the book’s ending). It is his story that we feel more strongly connected to. But where the book succeeds is how by the end it is transformed from a post-modern fable to a pseudo-science fiction novel. The film clearly strayed away from this and it works for its own good. Unfortunately Roehler cannot resist and forces the sci-fi angle in a superfluous end chyron.
Atomised is a bad adaptation, but what is worse is that it is a bad film regardless.