Adapting Michel's Houllebecq's philosophic and misanthropic Atomised novel is as difficult a task for a film director as it was inevitable considering how relevant a picture of contemporary life Houllebecq succeeded in creating with his 'controversial' book. But maverick German producer Bernd Eichinger, the man who has given the world a truly eclectic selection of films, including Christiane F, The Never Ending Story and The Name of the Rose, took up the challenge with the help of director Oskar Roehler. The result: an odd but effective mixture of European arthouse and trash cinema that suits the original material quite well.
Atomised is the story of two half brothers, Michael (Christian Ulmen) and Bruno (Moritz Bleibtreu) living in Europe in the second part of the twentieth century. Their mother was a jet-setting hippie who neglected the two brothers, leaving them in the care of different grandparents. Michael becomes a successful genetic researcher while Bruno is a desperately lonely, sexually frustrated teacher who masturbates over pictures of his students. Their lives change when they find love in their thirties, which is the moment we arrive at their lives (childhood memories are shown in fuzzy, rainbow-coloured flashbacks). Michael finds love with childhood sweetheart Annabelle (Franka Potente of Run Lola Run fame). Bruno, in his turn, meets Christiane (Martina Gedeck) at a naturist camp when the pair have anonymous sex in a hot bath. But since this is no Hollywood romantic comedy, happiness is out of reach in sad, materialistic fien de siecle Europe; the relationships do not solve the brothers' existential problems.
The film succeeds in packing in some of the key ideas of Houllebecq's book, which, at points, reads almost like a rant or an essay against a world that has neglected philosophy, destroyed family life etc, ideas that may have a deceptively neo-conservative ring to them, but which are often just shockers employed by the author to defy naturalised concepts that inform late capitalist Western societies. At points, Roehler puts them across via dialogues and in those instances they seem forced and contrived, like a second-rate solution to a difficult narrative challenge. But, like the book, the film alternates between moments of parodic stupidity and fierce intelligence. In such instances it translates the form of the book more accurately. Bleibtreu as Bruno was a casting coup with his bee-stung lips, baby butch looks and unclear ethnic appearance (he is German of Austrian descent but he comes across as perhaps Mediterranean or even Middle Eastern). He is also a very good actor who is not afraid of being ridiculous and pathetic, a real prerequisite for this demanding role.
The film also successfully replaced the France of the book for Germany as its setting. Perhaps it's the image of Germany as a technologically advanced, futuristic country with a strong counter-cultural tradition that helps, an epitome of post-industrial, secular Europe. Besides, it's hard to beat German cinema when it comes to emotional despair, the theme that sums up Atomised. As Christine says to Bruno after they first meet: "I used to enjoy life. When did it all go wrong?"
Atomised is out in the UK today.