Based on Michael Houellebecq's partly autobiographical novel, Whatever (Extension Du Domaine De La Lutte) finds Philippe Harel on top form from behind, and in front of the camera, adding scriptwriter and actor to his directorial duties. Harel takes the role of a lonely man, simply referred to as 'Notre Heros' (Our Hero) in the voice-over narration, whose mid-life crisis arrived a good 20 years earlier. Apart from a romance with a woman named Veronique (possibly imaginary, as our only proof is a photo which could have been anyone), our hero has led a priest-like existence, with practically no contact with the opposite sex. A mundane job and weekends spent alone now threaten to finally push him over the edge, realising that this is how it's going to be for the long haul: tax returns up to date, bils paid on time and an empty house, with mild depression his only companion.
For the opening half hour, Whatever is painfully slow and, in truth, barely increases pace thereafter. Given the extremely depressing subject matter, Harel's direction is exquisitely judged, painting a dark portrait of self-loathing and then introducing a character who is arguably even more screwed up than our hero. Raphael Tisserand - a 28 year-old virgin - (Garcia) enters the fray to accompany our hero on a business trip, aiming to finally break his losing streak; possibly with one of the students he's paid to teach. As the pair lurch from one bar to another, our hero realises his own life helps to ease Tisserand's pain; a final insult that threatens to turn one of them into a cold-blooded killer.
With the exceptions of odious whizz kid Schnable (Simon), career girl Catherine (Reigher) and a cold-hearted psychiatrist (Mouchet), this is very much a two-hander with Harel and Garcia - both excellent - vying for our votes as their nooses grow ever tighter. Tisserand in particular is a bomb just waiting to go off, and it's a chilling moment indeed when our hero tells him a few home truths, and then charts the course to his colleague's one true desire.
While Whatever does contain fleeting moments of humour - our heros' answer phone states, "Wrong number, but please leave a message"- it's largely a deflating experience and God knows what kind of a mood one has to be in to brave a second viewing. First-timers should be aware that while Harel's film is hardly one of those hot potatoes that draws outrage from our self-appointed 'moral guardians', it does carry some controversial baggage; including a few seconds of penetrative sex taken from a skin flick, and the sight of our hero masturbating to the image of a bald vagina. There's also a point where Harel seems about to emabark into even more graphic territory, with a nod to one Jorg Buttgereit. Ultimately, the joyless, totally downbeat subject matter is unable to fully engage our abilities to care for the two main players, and the hint of better times ahead at the finale is very much open to interpretation; I certainly didn't buy it, preferring to believe it was simply part of an ongoing fever dream.
Quite scary, in a Travis Bickle kind of way.