First published in 1998, Michel Houellebecq's novel 'Les Particules élémentaires' (or 'Atomised', as it was retitled in English) quickly became a cult sensation, and has since been translated into over 25 languages. Notorious for the (often reactionary) frankness of its assaults on postmodern life, the book delivered its bleak warnings like a ranting prophet at the gateway to the new millennium.
With its puzzling narrative structure and its uncompromising bleakness, Houellebecq's novel had been dubbed 'unfilmable', but now, after a process of adaptation that took him three years, Oskar Roehler brings a version of the novel to our screens. While it may follow the route of similar 'impossible' adaptations (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Naked Lunch) by selectively focussing on a love story element, and it may change the novel's irredeemably bitter ending to something a little more, well, bittersweet, Atomised the movie still feels like an elegy for the lost values of the past, as well as a vicious critique of our own times. And it is also, in its black way, very funny.
Attracted since childhood to the eugenic dystopia of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World', bespectacled molecular biologist Michael (Christian Ulmen) has devoted himself wholly, if hesitantly, to researching sex-free reproduction, leaving no room in his personal life for any kind of human intimacy. Meanwhile nervous, horny Bruno (Moritz Bleibtreu) divides his time between writing reactionary essays on the natural inferiority of "Negroes", slipping sedatives into his baby's milk to stop it crying, masturbating over the essays of his literature pupils, and visiting brothels to fuel his limitless sexual frustration - when, that is, he has not checked himself into a clinic for suicidal depression.
They may seem worlds apart, but these two half-brothers are both products of a young hippie mother (Nina Hoss) who abandoned them at an early age to separate grandmothers while she enjoyed an irresponsible life of free love. Set adrift in their joint legacy of alienation, dysfunction and unhappiness, they both seem doomed to a future of permanent loneliness, but then, in their late thirties, they unexpectedly find love - Michael reuniting with his childhood friend Annabelle (Franka Potente), and Bruno meeting his match in jaded sexual hedonist Christiane (Martina Gedeck). Except that fate has a twist in store for the two men that will lead one to face the reality of his scientific theories, and the other to retreat forever into guilt-driven fantasy.
As Michael and Bruno struggle through a new world of plastic surgery, cloning, abortions, psycho-parmaceuticals, therapy, feminism, political correctness, science-driven secularism and New Age mumbo jumbo, they flail about for any kind of fixed value, Michael finding his answers in the comforting reductiveness of rationalism, and Bruno in commodified sex and prescribed drugs. Yet the questions with which they wrestle, about love, family, the search for happiness, are the elementary particles of human existence - and it is this essential humanity, carefully dramatised by the two leads, which keeps their characters engaging and even sympathetic.
Michael has endeavoured to become an affect-free automaton, but Ulmen makes his every look and gesture ache with a longing that belies his nerdy frigidity. It is a performance of masterful subtlety, generating interest for a character who might so easily have just been dull. In a completely different, but equally impressive manner, Bleibtreu takes one of the most casually odious characters to have been seen in recent cinema - the priapic racist Bruno - and finds within all his self-pity a genuine vulnerability. His Bruno is mesmerising, ridiculous and ultimately rather moving, as he disappears once and for all into the erotic delusions that have driven him from the start.
In the end, Atomised occupies ground somewhere between the novel on which it is based, and films like Sam Mendes' American Beauty and Todd Solondz's Happiness. While it does contain some fairly strong sexual content, there is an amiability to its satirical bite that Houellebecq's novel altogether lacked, making the film not so much a perfect clone of the original as a mutant recombination of the same basic genetic materials, engineered to be more palatable. The results are a hybrid of the morbid and the mordant, the decadent and the darkly delicious, and while it will not necessarily make you happy, it will certainly leave you satisfied.