Sunday, 10 April 2011

La Nuit des Traquees /
The Night of the Hunted

The first piece of advice for anyone setting out to watch ‘La Nuit des Traquees’: forget any expectations you may have about ‘a Jean Rollin film’.

A unique and deeply upsetting piece of cinema practically clawing its way into existence from the most marginal circumstances imaginable, ‘La Nuit..’ is a real shock to the senses for Rollin fans – a film so far removed from the otherworldly atmosphere and hazy, fairytale logic of his previous work that it seems as if the director is deliberately plunging himself toward the opposite extreme, in a desperate attempt to confront head-on the kind of dismal, post-industrial ‘reality’ that his films had always sought so poignantly to escape from.

Rollin’s earlier films were moving and sad, of course, but their sadness was always of a slightly wistful, mythical variety. In ‘La Nuit..’, he takes the same kind of themes that have always resonated with him (memory, mystery, childhood friendship etc.) and drags them kicking and screaming from the realm of shadowed ruins and diaphanous gowns into a space of clinical, late 20th century misery, where basic dignity is impossible, where bright strip-lighting forbids any hope of escape. It’s a pretty brutal transition.

The film begins when Robert (Vincent Gardère), driving alone late at night, encounters Elisabeth (Brigitte Lahaie), who flees from the woods in her nightgown. Véronique (Dominique Journet) follows some way behind, stark naked. So far, so Rollin, but there is no psychedelic kinkiness afoot here – these women’s distress seems very real.

It quickly becomes clear that Elisabeth is suffering from a form of extremely severe amnesia, and that her short term memory is disintegrating at a frightening rate. By the time Robert picks her up, she can’t remember who she is fleeing from, or where she lives. She remembers the name Véronique, but soon forgets her friend’s existence, telling Robert that she thinks she is probably alone. By the time they arrive back at Robert’s flat at dawn (he having apparently deciding that alerting the authorities is not the best course of action at this point), Elisabeth has already forgotten who he is and where he is taking her.

A pretty intriguing opening for any movie, no doubt. But if there has been a whole glut of movies in the past ten or fifteen years that have explored similar variations on the theme of memory loss, all the ones I remember seeing (Christopher Nolan’s “Momento” and that godawful Tom Cruise “Vanilla Sky” movie spring to mind) have essentially treated the subject as a jumping off point for convoluted thriller plotlines and logic puzzles. None have really set out to achieve what Rollin’s humble film does in emphasizing the emotional impact of amnesia, or in communicating the notion of how completely crippling this condition would be to a sufferer’s ability to function as a human being.

Elisabeth, and her fellow sufferers in the secure unit from which she has escaped, live in a constant state of anxiety and confusion, unable to anchor themselves to even the most basic certainties or personal identities. Seeing the damage wrought on these characters, who drift like catatonics in-between occasional flashes of intelligence and defiance, unable to tell whether a child they distantly recall is their own or a fake memory made up by a friend to comfort them, is extremely harrowing. The scene in which Elizabeth’s roommate Catherine (Catherine Greiner) attempts to feed herself, her motor skills malfunctioning as her condition becomes more severe, is incredibly uncomfortable to watch – an expression of pain and futility more like something you’d expect to see in a gruelling docu-drama about living with disability than in a supposed ‘exploitation’ film. And if the opening scenes between Lahaie and Gardère are somewhat stilted, the performances Rollin later manages to coax out of his cast (largely comprised of non-professionals and performers recruited from the porno industry) in portraying this condition is often little short of extraordinary – an instant refutation of anyone who has ever laughed at the exaggerated, gestural acting in his vampire movies.

Which brings us neatly to my second piece of advice for anyone setting out to watch ‘Le Nuit des Traquees’: please try to understand the circumstances under which it was made.

As a film, ‘La Nuit..’ is compromised from the outset – an ‘almost masterpiece’, as broken and defiled as it’s characters. It is a film whose emotional power and originality deserves to be taken seriously. But the damage wrought by both the production’s miniscule budget and cruelly tight schedule, and the jarring mixture of footage Rollin was forced to include to secure a release, mean that it never will be.

By all accounts, ‘La Nuit des Traquees’ was a film that almost didn’t exist at all. The dawn of the ‘80s found Jean Rollin’s career (and presumably his spirits) at an all-time low. Despite receiving a boost from the modest success of ‘Grapes of Death’ in ’78, the fact remained that the three films Rollin had really put his heart and soul into over the preceding decade – ‘Le Rose de Fer’, ‘Levres de Sang’ and ‘Fascination’ – had all been crushing commercial failures. Given Rollin’s regular practice of ploughing all the money he had after one film straight into the production of the next one, his opportunities to work on his own material were naturally moving in ever-decreasing circles after such a series of perceived ‘disasters’, and when ‘Fascination’ – one of the first films of his career to actually gain some positive critical notices – was unaccountably withdrawn from distribution with all of his future production cash still tied up in it, his last chance to direct anything other than cheapo fuck movies seemed to have disappeared for good.

As Jeremy Richey notes in his review of ‘La Nuit..’ for the Fascination blog:

‘The quite stunning Fascination should have served as a major turning point for Jean Rollin, but the film’s botched release sent him back into the adult film industry he was trying so hard to escape from. He shot three additional Robert Xavier films between Fascination and The Night of the Hunted, and indeed the latter was supposed to have been just another cheap adult feature for Rollin. Rollin recalls on the [Encore DVD] commentary track, “I was tired of X-Films”, and he told his producer, “If you want a horror film for the same cost”, then, “I can make it in 9 days.”’

Et voila. Shot on a porno budget, on a schedule that works out at about a quarter of the shooting time usually allowed for even the lowest budget feature film in the ‘70s, and further compromised by copious quantities of producer-enforced sex and gore footage, to call ‘Le Nuit des Traquees’ ‘threadbare’ would be something of an understatement. I don’t want to labour the point, but the net result is the kind of movie where when a scene calls for two cars, you’re kind of surprised that the production team still had access to two cars.

Most of the film’s interiors were shot on one floor of a recently constructed office block outside Paris, with shooting restricted to the hours between when the workers left in the evening and when the cleaners turned up the next morning – a circumstance that Tohill & Tombs, in their rather dismissive overview of ‘La Nuit..’ in ‘Immoral Tales’, credit with inspiring the film’s “somnambulant” quality.

Setting and landscape has always of course been extremely important to low budget filmmakers deprived of the luxuries of studio time and set construction, and Rollin in particular has always proved himself a master of moulding the atmosphere of his films to fit the spirit of the locations available to him. His technique worked splendidly with desolate chateaus, clifftops and cemeteries, but, perhaps surprisingly, he adapts himself equally well here to the obvious limitations of a bare, pre-fabricated office block.

The strip lighting, the uniform grey carpet and utilitarian plastic fixtures, the windows looking out onto a desolate hinterland of overpasses, industrial estates and weird, doomed new-build skyscrapers - the kind of landscape from which shopping malls and warehouse stores would no doubt begin to sprout only a few years after ‘La Nuit..’ was made – all of this makes for a more authentically spirit-crushing location for the film’s dubious ‘containment ward’ than a more typical slopbucket-gothic ‘prison hell’ set ever could have provided.

For exterior shots, Rollin frames the fragmentary, brutalist architecture of the surroundings in the most menacing way possible, making the concrete and steel edifices around the tower-block seem almost futuristic – the same methodology patented for all time by Godard in ‘Alphaville’ nearly twenty years beforehand. Whilst Godard arguably saw a futurist beauty in these buildings though, Rollin seems to treat them as symptomatic of utter dread, accompanying almost all his exterior shots with dissonant synth stabs and never missing a chance to utilise haunted, oppressive angles. Admittedly this is supposed to be a ‘horror movie’, so this is broadly in line with what might be expected, but it’s probably still not too much of a leap to suggest the dread Rollin feels emanating from these surroundings, and the challenge they present to the more romantic culture he represents, is very genuine. It is this fearful, Ballardian atmosphere above all which has probably led to the frequent comparisons between ‘La Nuit des Traquees’ and David Cronenberg’s early films.

As an intelligent, genuinely disturbing horror movie set against a clinical modernist aesthetic in the entropic malaise of the late 1970s, ‘La Nuit..’ would certainly seem to invite comparison to ‘Shivers’ or ‘Rabid’… if only Rollin had been able here to utilise violence and sexuality even remotely as effectively as his Canadian counterpart.

The biggest stumbling block to an appreciation of ‘La Nuit des Traquess’ – especially for viewers unsympathetic to the strange ways of lower tier Euro exploitation films – is the jarring inclusion of a lot of utterly gratuitous sex/violence footage. The finished film is full of sequences that seem so bizarrely out of place when placed next to unbearably fragile tone of the inter-character scenes that I think Hans of the Quiet Cool blog is spot-on when in his review of the film he talks about the ‘tender scenes’ and ‘exploitative scenes’ “standing together like bullies and victims, forced uncomfortably together for a school photo”.

It doesn’t help that much of the exploitative material is poor staged, weirdly paced and sometimes astoundingly stupid. About eight minutes of the film’s opening half hour are taken up with a seemingly never-ending softcore sex scene between Lahaie and Gardère, a sequence that, whilst it is relevant to the narrative insofar as it establishes the characters’ strong bond with each other, nonetheless goes on for so long that curious viewers drawn in by the film’s opening scenes might be forgiven for thinking they’ve been fooled into watching an extremely tedious soft porn flick, and turn their attention elsewhere.

Even more misguided is the fate allotted to the aforementioned Catherine, whom we are supposed to believe commits suicide by stabbing herself in the eyes with a pair of scissors(!). If the resulting mess is by far the film’s most enduring image for gore fans, the physical circumstances of the act itself are completely absurd, and the lingering shots of her naked corpse seem like an unforgivably cheap and sleazy way to end the life of a character who in her few short scenes had established herself deeply in our affections. It’s like the bully of the film’s dark side just punched us in the gut and stood over us laughing.

(Actually, lingering shots of corpses seem to be a pretty consistent motif in ‘La Nuit des Traquees’… I dunno why, but god knows, it certainly doesn’t help make the film any more cheery.)

As several more ugly scenes of sexualised violence grind by, the film, at it’s worst moments, starts to slip slightly toward the familiar rut of one of the innumerable Women In Prison movies that were such an inescapable feature of late 70s/early 80s exploitation, with the ward’s amoral doctor/overlord and his female second in command inflicting sundry indignities on the remaining cast of dazed, near-naked women, and so forth.

As this dispiriting middle section continues, we can maybe start to detect a certain meta-commentary from Rollin on the tiredness and waste of exploitation industry in which he was enmeshed. Pretty much all the women in the film dutifully get naked, and all the men get enraged and commit acts of violence; but all of it is staged with such dead-eyed, confused incomprehension, all of it carefully calculated not to titillate or excite anybody in the slightest, that the gruelling crap-ness of these scenes almost begins to seem like a rebellious gesture from Rollin – “you want this stuff ? Well here it fucking is – can I get on with my movie now?”

The film’s casting is both key to its overall power and, I would like to think, another facet of Rollin’s quiet rebellion against the exploitation industry. Many of the players are familiar faces from exploitation and porno movies, but the leading actresses - Lahaie, Journet and Greiner – are all women who I can’t imagine ever having been fully comfortable in those roles, regardless of their bodily ‘assets’. All of them have strong, distinctive faces, and are possessed of a certain haunted, deeply troubled look too unmistakable to ever really let a hetero-male audience feel fully comfortable as they get down to the nitty-gritty (or, uh, so I would imagine). Rollin’s masterstroke in casting ‘La Nuit..’ was to recognise this unsettling quality, and to allow these actresses the space and framework they needed to express some of their true feelings on screen, allowing them to deliver intense and upsetting performances that live on in the memory long after the gore and nastiness has faded away.

If we imagine taking some stereotypical snotty cineaste to see ‘La Nuit des Traquees’ then, yes - they would have every right to be repulsed, confused, bored and offended by what they see. Clearly I’m hugely sympathetic to Jean Rollin, and I’m always liable to try to view his work in the best possible light. I’ve taken the time to read up on the background of this film and to see how it fits into his career, and so on. But even I would cop that 'La Nuit..'s failings are pretty substantial, and that it is really not what the vast majority of viewers would consider a ‘good film’. Really it is more of a broken shell, with the essence of a great film dying somewhere inside it… and I understand that that’s not the kind of thing everyone’s gonna want to make time for in their lives.

When our hypothetical cineaste gets to the ending though, when s/he sees the long, excruciating walk along the trainlines, as Elisabeth and Robert pull themselves along, step by step, as the life drains out of them and they slowly become dead to the world… well I’d hope that by that point there is no way anyone could deny that, whatever the cruel shortcomings fate imposed on this film, we are still looking at the work of a filmmaker with a soul and a vision, and an unshakable faith in human dignity.

Sorry to end on such a pompous note, but it’s just gotta be said.

As Hans concludes his review; “La nuit des traquées is an obscure film in an obscure film maker’s filmography. There are no castles, no Castel twins, and no beach scenes. It’s a beautiful and sad film full of fragments, where perhaps, all its beauty and sadness reside.”

Amen to that.


Hans A. said...

Hey, Ben.

First, allow me to say how extremely flattered that I am that you quote my review of La nuit in your own. Thank you.

Second, this a fantastic piece. I always appreciate it when a writer devotes a really sensitivity and depth when writing about Rollin's cinema. Your review really fits this bill. This is also a testament to how fine a writer you are: your review makes anyone want to see it, despite its detractions, and makes me want to see it again with your observations and critiques in mind.

Since Rollin's death, I believe that his work is due for another appraisal and I believe that he is going to find more viewers and create new fans. Your review, Ben, is an excellent step towards this goal.

Always enjoy reading your writing, Ben. By the way, I bought an old paperback copy of "The Motorcycle" by de Mandiargues--a Grove Press edition. I wish you could see the cover (maybe I'll post a scan). When I saw it, I thought it was perfect for Breakfast in the Ruins. Hope all is well and be cool, Ben.

Ben said...

Hi Hans - good to hear from you, and thanks for your comments - I really appreciate it, and it's been good to see Quiet Cool back in action recently too!

Yeah, my obsession with Rollin has really reached a new height recently, maybe sparked by how sad I felt when he died; I've been a casual fan for years, but in the past few months I've watched or rewatched about eight of his movies; I've been catching up on some of his films (like this one) that I'd never seen before, and upgrading from some of my old Redemption VHSs to the Encore boxsets (pricey, but so worth it - the booklets alone are fantastic). I'm sure I'll be doing a few more Rollin reviews in the near future.

Good find on the "Motorcycle" paperback! I've not read my copy yet, but I really like the movie, and it's the kind of movie that just cries out for a great pulp cover! Feel free to send me a scan if you get 'round to it.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Wonderful piece Ben and thanks for using that quote from my look at the film. I have just added a direct link to this over at Fascination for you. Thanks again and well-done!