By Jake Watt
4th June 2017

“To learn how to become a poet is to unlearn how to live,” said Michel Houellebecq, the controversial French poet and novelist, whose books include 'Atomised', 'Platform' and 'Submission'.

‘To Stay Alive: A Method’ is a documentary about struggling artists, many with mental problems and dark histories, who are fighting against the odds to make their art. It is based on Houellebecq’s essay of the same name. Alongside several anonymous artists battling with mental health, Houellebecq and Iggy Pop feature prominently.

Throughout the film, reveries, interviews and dialogues alternate, with Iggy often directly addressing the viewers and using arguments from Houellebecq’s texts. The film takes an all-encompassing look at the intersection of art and survival, and features both fictionalised material and conversations between its two stars as they dissect their own success, and the cultural (and literal) starvation they had to endure to get where they are.

Houellebecq and Iggy Pop first met in 2009 after having admired each other's works for a long time, Houellebecq having been a big fan of The Stooges since he was a teenager and Pop ended up recording two albums in French as a consequence of his encounter with Houellebecq. Dutch journalist and filmmaker Erik Lieshout had first met Houellebecq when he interviewed him for Dutch television during the promotion of the novel 'The Possibility of an Island', and ended up directing 'Last Words', a behind-the-scenes documentary for Houellebecq's own film adaptation of the novel.


‘To Stay Alive: A Method’ opens with a sprinkling of smooth jazz as Iggy recites Houellebecq’s words on camera in a growling and professorial way from his own sunny garden in Miami. He talks about suffering and, with his hangdog, weathered face, he seems to be on as familiar terms with the concept as Houellebecq, who once stated that the role of the artist is to “put your finger on the wound in society and press down real hard”.

In spite of his success, Iggy has a strong sense of identification with the downtrodden protagonists in the film. In an interview with The Independent in 2016, Lieshout said: “I had Iggy read 'To Stay Alive' and he said it was exactly his story. He sent me a version of 'Open Up And Bleed', the song in the film. He said, listen to this, it represents for me exactly the feeling of 'To Stay Alive'. At that time, like he admits in the film, he was doing self-mutilation and he had mental problems. His records were selling for 80 cents, even 'Raw Power' which is [considered] one of the 100 top classic albums right now.”

Iggy has a strong sense of identification with the downtrodden protagonists in the film.

Depressing subject matter aside, ‘To Stay Alive: A Method’ features several strikingly shot scenes, such as Iggy walking in the middle of the street towards the sunrise, limping, and all the other poets and artists behind him. Shot without official permission on the Parisian Boulevard Saint-Germain, apparently Houellebecq’s security guards – put in place to protect him when his novel 'Submission' provoked accusations of Islamophobia – helped keep the crowds at bay. Another scene, where we watch Iggy Pop huskily singing 'I Want to Go to the Beach' on his doorstep before he goes off to meet Houellebecq, demonstrates the artist’s vulnerability.

The documentary also has its comical moments. It’s impossible not to chuckle when the two meet at the house of Houellebecq’s late grandparents, to talk about each other’s work and drive, and express their mutual admiration. Shades of Jim Jarmusch’s 'Coffee and Cigarettes' emerge in the dialogue across a kitchen table.

Iggy: “So, you must live here alone, Michel?”

Michel: “Mmm-hmm,” he nods, his eyelids drooping. He looks tired, unhappy and not unlike a goblin puppet rejected from Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’ for being too creepy.

There is a weighted pause.

Iggy: “Mmm, no... girlfriend...?”

Cut back to Michel’s extremely weathered face and dull eyes.

Well, I laughed.

Iggy Pop is a seriously likeable character, Michel Houellebecq is an intriguing and provocative writer, and ‘To Stay Alive - A Method’ is a thought-provoking appeal to artists to break their chains and go for it.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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