Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Night of the Hunted (1980)

Brigitte Lahaie and Dominique Journet

Many of the films of Jean Rollin, especially the early vampire films and gothic masterpiece The Iron Rose, seem to take place in a present haunted by an inescapable past.  His protagonists may begin the films confident professionals, career criminals, or bored intellectuals, but once they set foot outside their comfort zones they're inevitably confronted by the same reality.  Rollin's is a world in which the countryside is dotted with decaying castles and villas, resplendent in their faded glamour.  A seductive world in which death is but a prolonged dusk and curses may haunt for generations.  And most importantly a world in which a beach of rugged beauty that promises the infinite, glimpsed in childhood, becomes a stage for transformation and rebirth.

By contrast here, in The Night of the Hunted, we find ourselves in a world that is all present, utterly stripped of the past, offering only glittering promises of an ever-imminent future.  Memories slip away the moment something new crosses the field of vision, and where a past is required one can be created from scratch only to be discarded moments later.

On a dark country road, Robert (Vincent Gardère) sees a young woman, dressed only in a nightgown, staggering in the darkness.  Elysabeth (Brigitte Lahaie) is clearly terrified, believes she's being followed and begs for his help.  Out of their sight, a second woman named Véronique  (Dominique Journet), is struggling naked through the woods, screaming that Elysabeth not leave her.

Dominique Journet
Elysabeth's memory is clearly failing.  In the car with Robert, she forgets that she'd been chased and doesn't know how she ended up in this vehicle with a strange man.  Back at his apartment, she begs him not to leave, knowing that once he leaves it will be for her as though he never existed at all.

It seems that Elysabeth and Véronique are both refugees from the Black Tower, a monolithic skysraper that serves as the home for people who share their memory defects.  There, people lounge listlessly in empty rooms, speculating about pasts that they made up only moments before.  When Elysabeth is reunited with her roommate Catherine, Catherine says that she must have met Elysabeth before because there are things in the cupboard she doesn't recognize.   Elysabeth reassures her that they must have been great friends; it's just as well to assume they've known each since childhood.  And so they do, and thus they have.

As more is revealed about the nature of their affliction, it becomes clear that more than their memory is at stake.  Lunacy is a constant specter, and muscle memory seems just as fragile -- patients in the tower often struggle with balance, and Catherine describes the process of willing movement as she tries to feed herself as empty, illogical, irrational.

A prop used in the Black Tower's lounge suggests thematic continuity with Rollin's previous works and allows us greater insight into what he is saying about our relationship to the past in this film.  One of the patients slumps against a wall, flipping through an ornate picture album containing photos that look to be nearly a century old.  The woman explains that she can't stop looking at it because she's certain that if she can recognize one of the faces that might serve as the foundation on which she could reconstruct her own identity. 

Astute viewers of Rollin's films will recognize the photo album, as it has been featured in at least two other of his films.  In Lips of Blood, a vampire is imprisoned immobile in an ancient ruin with her few possessions, among them the photo album.  Her escape, the film ultimately reveals, literally depends on her being remembered.  In the film The Living Dead Girl, made two years after Hunted, an accident of modern science animates the corpse of a recently deceased young woman.  In her state of walking death she is monster, not far removed from Romero's zombies.  Yet a few items stir memories within her -- a rocking horse, an iconic music box, and this same photo album.  It is those memories that allow her to fight her instincts and restore some portion of her humanity, at least temporally.  In both films Rollin seems to be suggesting that our relationship to our past is essential, both to our freedom and our humanity.

The curiously empty lounge of the Black Tower
There's a stark and harrowing critique of modernity here, even if the producer-mandated softcore sex and gore give this the superficial appearance of a run-of-the-mill grindhouse flick.  As the film reaches it's harrowing climax and we see the patients loaded into boxcars and taken to a facility where doctors debate the morality of euthanasia, the story seems to take a decidedly political tone.  Rollin himself confirms, in the booklet accompanying the excellent special edition from Encore Video, that this was his most political film, and that the evocation of Nazi Germany is no coincidence.  Like critical theorists Horkheimer and Adorno, he seems to be suggesting that the Holocaust was the inevitable consequence of modernity, rather than mere aberration.  Stories are told to rationalize and justify the horrors ultimately inflicted upon the patients; they seem designed to reassure the inquisitor and perpetrator alike.  But in a world where any past, so long as it submits to logic, can be fabricated, is there any limit to the atrocities man must submit to?

The consensus among both critics and fans of Rollin seems to be that Hunted is the worst of the films Rollin directed under his own name.  The director himself claimed that the movie was "incomplete" and the one work that he'd most like to re-make.  Shot in a mere ten-days on a shoe-string budget, in an accompanying interview Rollin recalls the filming as a struggle against lazy editors and producers who would have much rather been funding a porno.  Yet Rollin was always skilled at extracting the last drop of production quality out of his limited budget and facilities.  I would not make the claim that this film can stand beside Rollin's greatest works, like The Iron Rose or The Living Dead Girl, but I do think it is due for serious reevaluation, especially among the director's fans.  For those viewers willing to embrace its surreal quality, and able to look past its technical shortcomings and lack of visual polish, Night of the Hunted is a nightmarish modern fairy tale that has far more to say about our present condition than many will allow themselves to hear.


  1. A fine re-evaluation: I think this is a very much underrated film, and for me it's Rollin's bleakest and most chilling. It made me think of JG Ballard, and of Cronenberg's early movies.

  2. Thanks Soukesian...Ballard and Cronenberg are both great touchstones for this film. I'll admit I haven't read as much Ballard as I would have liked to have, but I definitely kept thinking about High-Rise while watching this for the first time.