Michel Houellebecq's IMPAC award-winning novel 'Atomised' is one of those books which has split readers since it was first published in 1998. For every person that thought it was distasteful, depressing and heavy going, there was another who picked it up, couldn't put it down and came to the conclusion that Houellebecq had nailed modern life within its pages. What most people probably agreed on, however, was that 'Atomised' was one of those works which would never make it to celluloid. Of course most books that are considered 'unfilmable' usually end up in cinemas and now Oskar Roehler's adaptation looks sets to polarise people all over again.
Half-brothers Michael (Ulmen) and Bruno (Bleibtreu) have grown up very different men – or so they/we think. Deserted by their hippie commune-living mother (Hoss) as children, they were raised by their respective grandparents - upbringings which have left both with massive amounts of baggage in terms of their own identities and relationships with others, particularly women.
The painfully aloof Michael became a scientist, is at the forefront of
developing asexual human reproduction and has shut himself off from intimate human contact. Bruno, on the other hand, is a sex-addicted school teacher who obsesses about his students, finds his wife no longer arouses him and writes racist literature in his spare time.
How Michael and Bruno define themselves and the world could be about to change, however.
When Michael has to visit the area he grew up in he meets Annabelle (Potente), the girl who he loved - and loved him - as a teenager but could never express his feelings for.
Bruno molests one of his students, has a nervous breakdown and emerges from therapy as libidinous as ever, but about to discover that his life could reach something of an even keel.
The question is: have both Michael and Bruno gone too far down their lonely roads to allow travelling companions beside them?
Grim, funny, moving and thought-provoking, Roehler's film will find some people who will rank it as one of their films of the year and others who will say that he has ruined Houellebecq's book and reduced it to a slapdash melodrama.
Whatever side you choose, the one thing it's hard to argue about is the quality of the performances – Ulmen, Potente and, in particular, Bleibtreu are so good here that you won't forget their work in a hurry.
'Atomised' begins with a quote from Einstein about how it isn't necessary to understand everything in the world to find one's way in it and what follows is a film which hits the depths and peaks of emotion and whose ultimate message is the remedial power of human relationships, however unlikely or unconventional they may seem.
And while there's a feeling throughout that the story and interactions needed more screen time and space, it's compensated for by scenes of real power.
A film that will have plenty of detractors but will also steer many in the direction of the book.