That one time Felix Guattari tried to sell a script in Hollywood

Revisiting ‘A Love of UIQ,’ the French philosopher's never-filmed sci-fi screenplay.


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That one time Felix Guattari tried to sell a script in Hollywood

Revisiting ‘A Love of UIQ,’ the French philosopher's never-filmed sci-fi screenplay.

By 1987, French philosopher Felix Guattari had already changed the world. He’d invented a new form of psychoanalysis, fought against the Algerian War, physically constructed part of the University of Zagreb, and pioneered the existence of pirate radio. At 57, his entire life was defined by tumult and surprising leaps of faith. Yet the most surprising of all came that year when he approached the French Centre National de la Cinematographie with a request for state funding for an unlikely project.

“I am a writer and psychoanalyst, as well as a director of a psychiatric clinic that employs methods of Institutional Psycho-therapy,” he began, in his Preamble. Then came the curve-ball: “Now I would like to direct what, at least in appearance, will be a science fiction film.”

Attached was a screenplay.

Entitled Un Amour d’UIQ (A Love of UIQ), it told the story of a group of squatters living in an abandoned factory who make contact with an alien intelligence within a subatomic particle. At the story’s outset, Fred, an American journalist, and his pet monkey are in a single-engine plane flying over a wintry badlands shrouded in mist. Behind them, a young bio-chemist named Axel lies unconscious across one of the plane’s bench seats. After getting dropped off in a field outside Frankfurt, we are presented with what would be the title sequence:

“The strange spectacle of the lame journalist dragging Axel through the mist.”

Opening credits. Music. With its swirling mists and sense of approaching the unknown, the scene calls to mind Tarkovsky’s Solaris, another film about humans interacting with a decidedly non-human intelligence. Except where Solaris finds its Dr. Kelvin engaging a being the size of an planetary ocean, A Love of UIQ goes in the opposite direction. Axel, it turns out, is wearing a vial around his neck which contains UIQ: Universe of the Infra-Quark, an infinitely small alien consciousness which can transmit itself like a viral contagion.

After this ignominious landing, Axel and Fred fall in with a DJ named Janice, quickly heading to the squat she calls home. Along with the other squatters in the abandoned factory (punks, schizophrenics, children, animals, and the marginally employed), they establish contact with UIQ, an act with unpredictable and transformational results. Through their trans-universal communication, the subatomic being manifests itself through television screens, cloud patterns, and the movement of animals as it searches for something resembling a human face. As it becomes familiar with human psychology, it experiences the “petite bourgeois” emotions of love and jealousy, lashing out by mutating the human race into strange half-fish creatures. In the script’s finale, UIQ is injected directly into Janice’s brain, merging the being with its love in an act of unpredictable finitude.

Of the many, many, strange things that Felix Guattari wrote during his life, A Love of UIQ is perhaps the strangest of all. By the time he began work on A Love of UIQ, Felix Guattari had already established himself as his own kind of contagion within humanity. At age 15 he was an active member of the French Communist Party, working tirelessly for leftist causes up until his death in the early ‘90s. An influential psychoanalyst, he pioneered the concept of the transversal, shifting analysis away from the traditional patient-doctor structure to incorporate groups and collective thought. As an analyst, he almost became Jacques Lacan’s chosen heir before his ideas became too heretical for the Freudian thinker. After he met Gilles Deleuze in 1969, the two quickly began work together as the philosophical duo Deleuze and Guattari, releasing a series of influential works.

Despite all of this, in the last years of his life Guattari almost transformed himself into a Hollywood screenwriter, a fact which has only recently come to light due to the work of experimental filmmakers Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson. The pair had been working on a film about Deleuze, interviewing his students and friends, when a friend of Guattari’s let them know he had written a script “concerning a mutant strain of bacteria.”

“By coincidence, around that time, a psychoanalyst friend researching at IMEC on Guattari’s connections with the Lacanian circle told us she had seen the script in the archive,” the pair told me over email. “When we saw the script and the various notes and documents and realized that the early drafts had been co-written with [leftist director/screenwriter] Robert Kramer, we knew that we had to find a way of publishing it.”

The script was originally published in French in an edition that included two other film projects Guattari had worked on, one about the free radio movement in Italy, and another about Italian fugitives on the lam in France. Soon after, it was published in an English translation by the University of Minnesota Press.

“We completed the translation quite quickly,” said Maglioni & Thomson. “We took quite a lot of liberties…in a way it felt like a sort of ‘adaptation’ for the screen, without the film obviously.”

UIQ’s strange status as an intellectual, mind-bending take on science fiction puts it in league with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, the infamous would-be adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel that still only exists in theory. “Cinema is an extraordinary instrument for creating subjectivity,” Guattari wrote in his Director’s Preamble, when he submitted the script for state funding. “Up until now its rapports with psychoanalysis have been complex and frequently conflictual….but rarely have psychoanalysts had the chance to express themselves by helming a film production.”

Like Jodorowsky, Guattari sought out some truly adventurous collaborators to help bring his vision to life. Legendary synth pop artist (and YMO founder) Ryuichi Sakamoto is named in the script’s preamble, along with surrealist painter Roberto Matta. Even more tantalizing is a letter from Guattari to director Michelangelo Antonioni, which was also found in the archives. With films like Blowup and L’Avventura, Antonioni’s work straddled the line between art and commercial cinema in a way that stretched the boundaries of both categories, something that put him perfectly in tune with Guattari’s vision for a new kind of science fiction.

Perhaps most surprising of all is an overt gesture Guattari made towards Hollywood.

One of the many people to receive a copy of the script was Michael Phillips, the producer of The Sting, Taxi Driver, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Through an Italian dignitary who acted as intermediary, Guattari obtained the following response: “Michael Phillips really liked the script. The only thing is he’s afraid it’s too political, which would be a big problem for producers.”

The notion of being “too political” is something of an impossibility for Guattari, who viewed film as “political, whatever its subject.” “Each time it represents a man, a woman, a child, or animal, it takes part in a micro class struggle,” in the essay “Cinema of Desire.”

UIQ gestures towards something still unknown — a cinema not just philosophical, but created by philosophers, enacting their ideas in a way more immediate, direct, and easy to disseminate way than writing.

At the same time that he was working on UIQ, Guattari and Deleuze were theorizing the idea of a “minor literature” based around the work of Kafka. The idea of “minor” literature has to do with representation, and giving voice to the unrepresented within a larger culture. In Kafka’s case, this emerges as the voice of a Czech Jew writing in German, embodying the voices of the marginalized within a major language culture.

Through this lens, we can see UIQ taking place in contradistinction to most sci-fi films, with their often tacitly militaristic bent. Unlike Arrival, Ex Machina, Annihilation, Blade Runner, or even Solaris, none of its primary characters are state scientists, capitalist programmers, future-cops, or military workers. Instead, Guattari chose to frame his story through a collective made up of the marginalized members of society — Africans in Germany, stateless children, schizophrenic projections, and the marginally employed (crucially, two of the primary characters are proto-Uber workers who betray the collective for the idea of middle class stability). These characters lay out Guattari’s position on the “micro class struggle” that he saw inherent in film, making the fictional cast of characters itself a political act.

Unearthed by Magliani and Thomson, the history of UIQ maps one of many alternative paths that late 20th century sci-fi could have taken, one filled with radical potential, polyphonic voices, and representation within art still only hinted at through recent social movements. UIQ gestures towards something still unknown — a cinema not just philosophical, but created by philosophers, enacting their ideas in a way more immediate, direct, and easy to disseminate way than writing.

In the last years of his life, Guattari fell into a profound depression, thinking of his creative projects as a failure. Despite changing the shape of philosophy through his work with Deleuze, he had never become the creative writer that he longed to be. On August 28th, 1992, he died of a heart attack in his office at the La Borde clinic where he lived and worked.

Perhaps the idea of a microbial intelligence that far surpassed our own could never really work in Hollywood anyway. But the passionate effort that Guattari brought to the project speaks to the experience of artists everywhere, people who strive for connection in a system that (like Spotify, YouTube, and cable TV) only functions through the transmission of commercials. And yet, through its publication, his vision is now out there in the world, transmitting itself like a microbe, waiting for future generations to find, possibly even to bring to the screen. It may not exist yet, but UIQ lies in wait, hiding within the infinitely small.

Mike Huguenor is a musician, writer, & philosophy fan from San Jose, CA.