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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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt