Monday, April 22, 2013
The Night of the Hunted
Jean Rollin's The Night of the Hunted is a typically moody, abstractly haunting film from the idiosyncratic horror auteur. More even than most of his work, this film dispenses with any actual concrete horror in favor of a vague sense of disquiet that's almost entirely psychological and mental. This is a haunting study of the nature of memory and its linkage to identity and human consciousness, and the fear here arises almost entirely from the loss of memory, from the feeling of one's sense of self slipping away with one's memory. It's about fear of the loss of self, making this an entirely existential horror film.
The film opens in the fashion of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly: a young woman (Brigitte Lahaie), dressed only in a filmy nightie, runs out of the dark forest one night and into the path of a car driven by Robert (Alain Duclos). She tells him that her name is Elisabeth, and she's running in terror of something, but she doesn't remember what — moments later, she doesn't even remember that her name is Elisabeth. Her memories keep slipping away from her; it's not just amnesia, but the slippage of even short-term memory, so that if Robert were to be out of her sight for just a few minutes she'd forget him too. Naturally, she clings to him desperately, and he takes this confused, frightened girl back to his apartment, where he comforts her and they soon have sex, in a scene of cheesy, gratuitous softcore of the kind that Rollin almost always slotted into his films, and yet here the sex is tinged with desperation and a genuine thirst for connection. Elisabeth lives only in the present moment, she says, and she clings to each moment like a precious raft in a sea of nothingness, because each present moment is all she has to hang onto. She urges him on, demanding that he stay with her, that he not let her forget; her intense desire for a memory to cling to makes what could otherwise have been a rote, porny sex scene surprisingly poignant, both passionate and deeply sad.
Apparently, though, this whole situation doesn't leave enough of an impression on Robert, who, hapless as most male Rollin heroes, soon goes off to work, leaving Elisabeth alone to forget him, and herself, all over again. She's quickly found by the doctors she'd apparently been fleeing at the beginning of the film, and they take her to an apartment building that houses other patients, like her, whose memories are continually erased. Most of Rollin's previous work was set in the majestically ruined countryside, in crumbling ancient castles and disused graveyards, but The Night of the Hunted is an urban film, with a very different aesthetic. Rollin's haunted rural castles and fields had always been both creepy and beautiful, mingling fear and foreboding with the strange allure of death and the supernatural. In this film, though, the sinisterly blank apartment towers and concrete wastelands of the city are merely creepy, the building's surfaces and interiors as blank as the minds of the inhabitants. The building, obviously an abandoned office tower, is nearly undecorated, its walls stark white or black, and the patients, with their missing memories, wander aimlessly through these blank, sterile spaces, the austerity of their surroundings reflecting the emptiness of their lives.
It's a haunting, disturbingly poetic film, especially in its first half, before a series of pointless sex scenes and pseudo-scientific exposition dumps disrupt the poetic vibe. At the apartment, Elisabeth meets two other women who are afflicted as she is: Catherine (Cathy Stewart), whose memory is so bad that she can't even remember how to eat, and Véronique (Dominique Journet), who Elisabeth seems to vaguely remember from her previous life. The scenes between these women are evocative and poignant, as they struggle from moment to moment to remember something, to hold onto some memory, some experience, some person who means something to them. They invent stories and memories for each other. Catherine and Elisabeth pretend that they were childhood friends, though like everything else that game too soon slips away from them. Later, they encounter a woman who's constantly searching for her lost child: she remembers, or thinks she remembers, that she once had a child, but not the child's name or even its gender.
Rollin is delving into the nature of memory and what it means to the construction of one's identity: without memory these people are nothing, no one, barely even alive, their very selves erased along with their pasts. These scenes are deeply emotional, infused with tenderness and sadness, the film's opening already forgotten because these mysteriously afflicted people truly live exclusively in the present tense. In her previous collaborations with Rollin, The Grapes of Death and Fascination, Lehaie, who started her career as a porn actress, projected a fierce carnality, a feral, sexualized violence that made her the ultimate femme fatale. She seems like almost a different actress here, her intensity transmuted into vulnerability, melancholy, a sense of loss that seems to infuse her every gesture, her every fragile, innocent expression.
The film falls apart a bit at around the halfway point, replacing this moody exploration of loss and mental anguish with a number of gratuitous scenes of violence-tinged eroticism, which seem to have come from an entirely different film. Robert also returns towards the end, and the plot is needlessly explained in multiple exposition-laden speeches delivered by the sinister doctor. But the film's final image, which compares the memory-less Elisabeth to the shambling walking dead of a zombie film, provides an effective, eerily romantic finale for a strange, and strangely affecting, film. The Night of the Hunted is ultimately uneven and flawed, only sporadically delivering on its promise and its evocative study of memory and identity. At its best, though, the film achieves the haunting quality of Rollin's other films without any of the supernatural or horror elements that generally characterized his other work.