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Opinion: One born every minute

A young French couple, Veroniqué Herbert and Sébastien Paindavoine found a touching way of demonstrating their devotion to each other. Twenty-year old Herbert picked up a 16-year old boy at random and, with a promise of sex, lured him to her boyfriend's house. She and the boy took off their clothes, and when they were both naked Paindavoine - responding to a prearranged signal - stabbed the boy in the back and neck while Herbert used a second knife to stab him in the stomach. Then the loving couple buried the butchered boy in the garden and fled. It took the police just three days to catch up with them. Herbert's strange explanation for her involvement was, 'I just didn't want Sébastien to do it all alone. A murder, that's something which turns your life upside down and I didn't want him to live that alone.'

The event - and Herbert's comments - could have been scripted by Oliver Stone. So it is no surprise to discover that, once again, his 1994 film Natural Born Killers is being sourced as the inspiration for this particularly tawdry act of violence. Veroniqué Herbert even cited the film as part of her defence.

Conceding that the attack was motiveless, she blamed Stone's relentless account of the progress of Mickey and Mallory as they slaughter their way across America. 'The film', she explained, 'coincided with my state of mind. Maybe I muddled up dream and reality. I wanted to eliminate someone...The idea of killing invaded me'.

The 'natural born killer' defence is now pretty well established, although it is unusual for the perpetrator of the offence to claim the link quite so openly. More usually the link is drawn by lawyers or by the media - as in the case of another recently convicted French killer, Florence Rey.

Florence Rey was sent to prison for 20 years for her part in a Paris shoot-out that left five people dead, including the 23-year old lover with whom she went on the shooting rampage. The press christened the couple 'France's natural born killers' after a poster for the film was found in their flat. Britain has yet to see an explicit 'NBK killing', although the familiar complaints about 'the pernicious influence of Hollywood violence' were in evidence after the 1996 Dunblane massacre.

In America Natural Born Killers has already been cited in a dozen or so real-life murders that are allegedly copycat killing sprees. One lawyer has even attempted to sue Stone and Warner Brothers on behalf of a client who shot a couple in a convenience store. Top crime writer John Grisham supported the case, insisting that 'the artist should be required to share the responsibility along with the nut who pulled the trigger'.

Grisham argued that the amorality of Natural Born Killers makes it different to other violent movies, because the violence takes place in a 'moral void' and Mickey and Mallory never pay for their actions. Stone, I was delighted to discover, is not in the mood for compromise or apology. 'Has your father been brutalised?' he shot back at Grisham. 'Sue Oedipus and call Hamlet as a witness. Do you hate your mother? Blame Medea and Joan Crawford. Has your lawyer-husband been unfaithful? Slap a summons on Grisham. After all, he wrote The Firm.'

I have always found the argument that there is any link between violent movies - or books - and violent acts a little weird. Granted, somebody who is already predisposed to blowing people apart with a shotgun may draw a little inspiration from a fictitious portrayal of the same. It may be the case that it would not have occurred to Herbert that homicide was a cool way to bond with her boyfriend if Mickey and Mallory hadn't given her an example.

But can anybody really believe that if she had chosen to see The Lion King instead of Natural Born Killers life would have taken a dramatically different course, or that her murderous impulse would have been directed at hyenas? One could just as easily argue that the experience of witnessing up close, on celluloid, the impact of a shotgun blast, may have deterred some would-be homicidal maniacs. To me, killing always looks much easier and cleaner when a black-and-white John Wayne is pulling the trigger.

The notion of artists 'sharing the responsibility' for actions that arise out of their work is bizarre, and typical of the current mood in which nobody can be held truly responsible for their actions. Oliver Stone is no more responsible for Veroniqué Herbert's actions after she saw his film than he is for mine - or any of the other millions of fans for whom violent films are an inspiration for cathartic violent fantasies rather than destructive violent deeds.

Ann Bradley

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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