Gilbey on Film: the curse of Wild Target

Some movies seem to spell bad luck for everyone involved.

I haven't seen the British remake of the French comedy Wild Target, which opens on 18 June, and is directed by Jonathan Lynn, who cut his teeth writing Yes, Minister. The distributor arranged a single press screening a few weeks ago, which some might interpret as a sign of its less-than-fulsome belief in the movie's worth.

Me? I couldn't possibly comment. (Leslie Felperin, writing in the trade paper Variety, called the new picture "unlovable" and "seldom funny".)

However, I do hold the 1993 original in high esteem. It's a nimble farce about a prim gentleman-assassin (Jean Rochefort) whose ordered life is disturbed when he meets an elegant thief (Marie-Louis Trintignant) and a guileless young goofball (Guillaume Depardieu). The remake stars Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt and Rupert Grint in those main roles. I wonder if these actors were forewarned about the Wild Target curse.

We are used to hearing about productions which acquire "cursed" status because the misfortune quota during or after their completion is higher than the norm (and the film industry norm is pretty high as it is). It's usually horror films on which it never rains but it pours -- The Omen, The Exorcist, the Poltergeist trilogy and Rosemary's Baby being among the most notorious.

The implication is that dalliances with the supernatural can be dangerous to a filmmaker's health, incurring the wrath of some Satanic PR department that doesn't take kindly to mere mortals reporting on the lofty work of Beelzebub. You'll find a lot of US publicists operate on the same principle. That said, the accidents which befell those associated with The Omen -- shootings, bombings, plane crashes -- sound a bit too tame to be the work of any self-respecting Hollywood PR.

But if making a horror movie pisses off the red guy with the horns and the pitchfork, what on earth could a well-paced, effervescent French comedy have done to stir up a karmic shitstorm? Whatever it was, life did not go smoothly for the principal cast members, post-Wild Target.

Marie Trintignant died in 2003, aged 41, after a blow to the head from her partner, Bertrand Cantat, lead singer with the band Noir Désir. She was five days from completing the filming of Colette, a mini-series about the French novelist which she had co-written with her mother, who was also directing.

Guillaume Depardieu was no luckier. The actor, whose relationship with his father Gérard might have been called tempestuous if only it hadn't made the average tempest look like a refreshing summer breeze, already had a history of drug addiction when he came to Wild Target; he also admitted in his 2004 autobiography, Tout Donner ("Giving Everything"), to having worked as a teenage prostitute, sometimes simply to earn his train fare home. But it was a motorcycle accident in 1995 which began a protracted period of suffering that ended in his death. After 17 operations, then the amputation of his right leg after he picked up an infection in hospital, Depardieu died of pneumonia in 2008, aged 37.

Jean Rochefort may not have been quite as unfortunate as his co-stars. But when he suffered a herniated disc in 2000 while shooting Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, this became one of the key factors in that movie's collapse, as documented in the riveting documentary Lost in La Mancha. (Gilliam's film is rumoured to be a reality again at last, with Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor replacing Rochefort and Johnny Depp.)

Rochefort is a witty and nuanced performer whose career encompasses work with Buñuel, Chabrol, Patrice Leconte and Bertrand Tavernier. But perhaps we should take his willing involvement in Mr Bean's Holiday as further proof of the detrimental effect Wild Target has had on the careers and lives of those who made it.

Of course, it's all mumbo-jumbo. Take any group of people and chart their fortunes over time and eventually you'll turn up a liberal share of bad tidings. But watching the first Wild Target now becomes an unavoidably bittersweet experience because of what followed. And I include in that the subsequent career of the picture's writer-director, Pierre Salvadori , whose first two films marked him out as an appetising mix of Bertrand Blier and Billy Wilder.

After Wild Target, Salvadori made Les Apprentis, which was even better -- a downbeat comedy (of sorts) about two sad-sack friends slipping almost imperceptibly into the gutter. The picture's plangent tone is epitomised by a beautiful opening credits sequence: a series of dissolves on an apartment door which mark the passing of four years, accompanied by the voice of Antoine (Francois Cluzet) as he spends those years trying to compose a letter to the woman who left him. Depardieu plays the gangly loafer Fred, Antoine's flatmate, who memorably tells the woman of his dreams: "When I'm next to you, I think I should have a bath."

Salvadori has worked intermittently since then (he had a minor hit with the romantic comedy Priceless, starring Audrey Tautou). And better that he hit his peak with that initial one-two than never at all. But when you consider the promise that just seemed to evaporate, it's hard not to think: "Curses!"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era