The Fourth Man

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

WHATEVER

7/10

(Extension du Domaine de la Lutte)

Fr 1999

dir Philippe Harel

scr Harel & Michel Houellebecq (based on Houellebecq’s novel)

cin Gilles Henry

stars Harel, Jose Garcia, Cecile Reigher

121 minutes

The original title roughly translates as ‘Widening the Struggle’ – not very commercial, but entirely appropriate for an uncompromising, aggressively unlikeable slice of highbrow French cinema, one that hovers dangerously between black comedy and even blacker despair.

Writer-director Harel dominates the screen as ‘Our Hero,’ a nameless, anonymous, chain-smoking, blank-faced, intensely misanthropic software engineer in his mid-40s. Even when we can’t see him, he’s there on the soundtrack with his droning commentary, his pronouncements alternating with those of another voice, omniscient and authorial – the film seems keen to advertise, not hide, its literary source. The book attracted its plenty of controversy, many critics dismissing it as misogynist and cynical, and these charges have also been levelled at the movie version. But while similar fuss surrounding Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was avoided when it reached the big screen, largely because it was adapted and directed by women, there’s no such get-out clause for Harel and Houellebecq.

In fact, much of the power of Whatever resides in its ambiguities – how are we meant to ‘take’ what we’re shown on screen? To what degree are we meant to find Our Hero admirable, to what extent despicable?

We get plenty of evidence to work on: the film is unflinching in its examination both of his lifestyle – he lives alone, hardly ever goes out except to work, holds endless cigarettes between his nicotine-yellow middle fingers – and his psychology, biting deep into the vinegary layer-cake of his abrasive personality. For long stretches he expounds theories of modern life – how the free market in economics mirrors that in sexuality, the ‘struggle’ for love, money, sex and power now ‘widened’ to encompass all strata of society. Occasionally the ‘author’ cuts in with a decisive verdict on Our Hero’s musings (“Big mistake”), but mostly we’re left to make our own judgements. Harel passing through a recognisably anonymous modern world, a silent, infinitely opinionated observer of a world where human contact, human warmth, is, for many, only a cruel illusion, a taunt.

Whatever is clearly intended as a fable of modern urban alienation, but there’s thankfully a lot more to the film than such a description might suggest. There’s a nicely absurd edge to much of Our Hero’s misfortune: his answering machine kicks in with the words “Wrong number…”; checking his diary for New Year’s Eve, he discovers only a reminder to but washing-up liquid; calling the Samaritans, he discovers the line’s engaged; in a restaurant, he smothers his chips with an outrageously large dollop of mayonnaise.

And Our Hero isn’t the only interesting character on view. On a business trip to Rouen, he’s stuck with the gauche Raphael Tisserand (Garcia), an over-enthusiastic geek even more sexually frustrated that himself. Tisserand’s frenetic, hopeless efforts to click with the opposite sex send him spiralling into despair, and in a nightclub Our Hero brings him even further down with a jaw-droppingly negative anti-pep talk, where he drunkenly recommends a career as a serial killer – he even has a knife in his car…

Garcia gives Tisserand a surprising amount of appeal and depth, but again it’s hard to know what attitude the film has towards the character – he’s clearly a fool, with his garish checked suits and metallic ties, but is that any reason for Harel and Houellebecq to treat him with such pitiless condescension? Or is this condescension merely Our Hero’s? There’s no easy answer. Whatever is all about fluctuations in the relationships between character, director, actor, narrator and viewer. Nothing is fixed – everything is open to interpretation. The results are more intellectually intriguing than they are moving or especially cinematic: not a total success, then, but a brave, original, fascinating kind of near miss.