France 1999

Reviewed by Ginette Vincendeau


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Paris, the present. Though successful at work, a middle-aged executive, working in IT, has been living a socially and sexually barren life ever since his partner left him. This nameless protagonist loses his car, visits a client who stands him up, has dinner with a priest friend and visits a department store. At various points, he takes sleeping pills, watches porn, masturbates and vomits. He also fantasises about his female colleagues.

On a trip to western France with a colleague, Tisserand, the hero has a mild heart attack, but recovers. Both men fail to pick up women. The hero buys a knife and incites Tisserand to rape a young woman making love with her partner in the sand dunes, then to kill the couple. Tisserand can't go through with it. Later, Tisserand is killed in a car crash unwittingly caused by the hero's call to his mobile phone. The hero goes back to work but sinks into deeper depression. After he has violent fantasies about mutilated women, he checks into a clinic. A female psychiatrist fails to get through to him. He is last seen taking dancing lessons and smiling at his pretty female partner, who smiles back at him.


Whatever is closely based on a novel by Michel Houellebecq, one of France's literary sensations in the 90s. Houellebecq is best known for his later book, Les Particules élémentaires - fleetingly alluded to in the film - which created an enormous stir with its deep pessimism, obscenity and mercilessness. While Houellebecq is mainly criticised for his misogyny, his hatred is not confined to women, and he has made political incorrectness his credo: "It is true that gays exasperate me, just as blacks, ecologists, dykes and so on get on my nerves..." he has said. "Each time I see tribal behaviour I become sarcastic and vicious." Even in its moments of intended comedy, the film taps into this sensibility. At one point, the hero slaps a woman who asked him to put out his cigarette, provoking hilarity among the other characters. The presentation of the woman as a prissy frump clearly invites the spectator to side with the hero.

Philippe Harel, known in France for his 1997 hit comedy Les Randonneurs (about a hiking trip in Corsica) at first seems an odd choice for directing, and starring in, a Houellebecq adaptation. Until, that is, one sees pictures of Houellebecq and Harel - both dark, slim middle-aged men with a receding hairline. French reviewers have all noted how Harel, who plays the hero in the film, adopts Houellebecq's mannerisms, including his idiosyncratic way of holding his cigarette. And like Harel's 1998 feature, La Femme défendue, Whatever sticks determinedly to a first-person male perspective, with long stretches of the film overlaid with extracts of Houellebecq's writing.

Given its literary, solipsistic nature, Houellebecq novel doesn't lend itself to film adaptation. Thanks to the director's gloomy performance and José Garcia's moving turn as the hero's colleague Tisserand, Harel doesn't entirely fail in his ambitious enterprise. There are also a few funny vignettes where Harel's comic talent as a director surfaces, notably, the cringingly embarrassing training sessions the hero and Tisserand conduct, or their doomed attempts to pick up women in grim provincial bars. But such sharp scenes are mere comic relief in Houellebecq's grand pessimistic narrative where everybody - especially women - and everything is a target for the hero's ennui and disgust.

Embedded in this totalising malaise is a theory: ultra-liberal capitalism is paralleled by (and perhaps has produced) a similarly deregulated sexual economy; here, there are the ultra-rich (those with a varied, exciting sexual life) and the ultra-poor (those with none). The notion that the new 'free' sexual mores entail an inexorable extension of the sexual battle (which the film's French title Extension du domaine de la lutte, loosely translated as 'Extending the battle', makes clear) is an interesting insight. The film's early representation of the hero's face superimposed on a soulless high-rise block, its wicked satire of the corporate world and of a harsh society (motorists fail to stop when the sick hero is on the brink of collapse in the streets of Rouen) provide a considered grounding to this analysis.

However, this reasoning is viewed from a wholly male perspective, one in which women are described verbally and visually in terms of their genitalia, or "hole" as it's referred to. "How can one forget the vacuity of a vagina?" intones the hero who vomits after fantasies of, or encounters with, women. The voiceover resonates with a backlash sensibility: "Men," he says, "are the ultimate residues of the feminist fallout." And as these women withhold their sexuality from the hero and his friend, the 'solution' (which isn't presented as entirely fanciful) is to grab it back from them violently. In this respect, Whatever would seem to fit in with recent French films such as Seul contre tous and Baise-moi, in which sex and violence are linked in a seemingly inescapable dynamic. So while the film presents a subversive stance by featuring quotes by radical philosophers (Schopenhauer, Kant) and pushes censorship boundaries through its inclusion of pornographic imagery, it ends up supporting a reactionary analysis of social relations and advocating mindless violence.

Unlike Seul contre tous and Baise-moi, however, Whatever confines its violence to fantasy and would seem to provide a glimpse of hope at the end. But after an hour and 45 minutes of self-indulgent pessimism (or "depressionism" - a word which has been applied to Houellebecq), of unrelenting misogyny and misanthropic ranting, what weight can we give to the final images of an apparently content hero smiling sweetly at his dancing partner?


Philippe Harel
Adeline Lecallier
Philippe Harel
Michel Houellebecq
Based on the novel by
Michel Houellebecq
Director of Photography
Gilles Henry
Bénédicte Teiger
Art Director
Louise Marzaroli
©Lazennec Films/Le Studio Canal+
Production Companies
Lazennec presents in co-production with Le Studio Canal+ and the participation
of Canal+
Associate Producers
Alain Rocca
Christophe Rossignon
Bertrand Faivre
Production Manager
Ève Machuel
Unit Production Manager
Christophe Desenclos
Unit Manager
Laurence Thibault
Location Manager
Natacha Yevou
Assistant Directors
Jérôme Zajdermann
Gérôme Rivière
Ingrid Gogny
La Roche/Yon:
Philippe Guiheneuf
Script Supervisor
Bénédicte Teiger
Casting Director
Marie de Laubier
Camera Operator
Olivier Raffet
Anne Schotte
Key Make-up
Corinne Maillard
Music Consultant
Charles Henri de Pierrefeu
"Ma Peugeot 104", "Lutte finale", "Cybercraft" - Navis; "Cha Cha Cha des Thons" - Léo Missir; "Rock It Tonight (House par Mix Aleem)" - Seven Dub; "Groove la Musique" - Theleme; "Mauvais Coton" - Juan Rozoff; "Mes rêves" - Ysa Ferrer; "I'm Not Messin' Around" - Joe Louis Walker; "Ça se passe" - D. Abuz System; "I'm Not in Love" - 10cc; "Freedom" - Doctor L.; "Babylon Loves Us (Remix par Paris Angeles)" - The Julia Set; "Existence" - Bugge Wesseltoft; J.S. Bach's "Christ lag in Todesbaden" from "La Cantate BW 4" - Munich Bachorchester; "Stille Nacht" by T. Grüber - Chur des Petits Chanteurs de Chaillot; Bizet's "Les Pêcheurs de perles" - Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse & JohnAler; Waldteufel's "Amour et Printemps" - Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
Sound Engineers
Joël Flescher
Ricardo Castro
Thierry Delor
Sound Editor
Thomas Desjonquères
Sound Effects
Nicolas Becker
Philippe Harel
Our Hero
José Garcia
Raphaël Tisserand
Catherine Mouchet
the psychologist
Cécile Reigher
Catherine Lechardey
Marie Charlotte LeClaire
H. La Brette's secretary
Philippe Agael
Henri La Brette
Alain Guillo
Yvan Garouel
Ministry representative
Christophe Rossignon
Nicolas Simon
Philippe Staw
the psychiatrist
Jean-Luc Abel
Metro beggar
Constantine Attia
Malibu bouncer
Michka Assayas
information officer
Philippe Barrier
serpent's acolyte
Émilie Benoit
Metro woman
Marc Bonnel
Norbert Lejailly
Géraldine Bonnet-Guerin
secretary with high heels
Jean-Pierre Bourdaleix
DDA employee, Rouen
Pierre Brichese
DDA director
Édith Brunner
Fabrice Carlier
rocking patient
Alexandre Caumartin
Mercure waiter
Sophie Caritté
Mercure receptionist
Francine Chevalier
ministry receptionist
Stéphane Chomant
sleepwalking young man
Lili Cognard
first pair of legs
Jean-Michel Cannone
Julie Delafosse
pseudo Véronique
Sonia Delait
woman at Monoprix
Maryse Déol
second pair of legs
Roger Dolléans
dance teacher
Éric Doncarli
salesman at brasserie
Simon Doniol-Valcroze
hospital intern
Julie Dray
young girl in tanga
Émeline Drouin
rock dancer
Michèle Ernou
Schnabele's secretary
Stéphanie Gesnel
nurse at switchboard
Nathalie Grauvin
girl who undresses
Nicolas Guillot
Ministry representative
Jacques Hery
hospital room neighbour
Michèle Hery
hospital room neighbour's wife
Élizabeth Holzle
girl in the corridor
Michel Jeanjean
pensioner in pyjamas
Pierre Johann
agricultural socialist
Aliette Anglolff
sleepwalking young girl
Philippe Lemercier
Marie-Louise Lepelle
Françoise Loreau
Madame Duval
Ona Luambo
Frédérique Marlot
student on train
Marc Marcillac
Our Hero's neighbour
Philippe Marteau
duty intern
Patrick Mazet
Conforama salesperson
Isabelle Mazin
nurse in canteen
Jean-Luc Mimo
taxi driver
Karin Palmieri
Claire Ruppli
secretary who is slapped
Marie-Christine Robert
nurse at convalescent home
Delphine Valette
Our Hero's partner
Philippe Bianco
Artificial Eye Film Company
10,847 feet
120 minutes 32 seconds
Dolby Digital
In Colour
French theatrical title
Extension du domaine de la lutte
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011