Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Night of the Hunted (1980)

The Movie: Robert (Alain Duclos), is driving his car one dark night when he happens to catch sight of a woman in a white nightgown. He manages to get her name, Elisabeth (former French porn star and amazing actress Brigitte Lahaie), and that she’s running away from something or someone. Being the Good Samaritan he is, Robert offers to take her somewhere safe. However, Elisabeth’s memory is not good; at best she only recalls bits and pieces, and for the most part she forgets things as they happen. As a result, she and Robert drive off without noticing Veronique (the gorgeous Dominique Journet), the naked red-head crying and calling for Elisabeth.

On the drive home, Robert discovers just how bad Elisabeth’s memory really is; in only a short while she forgets what she’s doing in his car, or even that she asked him for help. However, he manages to get her to trust him. At Robert’s apartment, Elisabeth decides that she wants something she can remember, so she and Robert make love. The next morning he has to leave for work, but Robert gives Elisabeth the number for his office.

After Robert has left, two people approach Elisabeth: Doctor Francis (Bernard Papineau, who I have seen in at least one or two of Rollin’s other movies) and his assistant, Solange (porn star Rachel Mhas). They know about Elisabeth’s condition, and have come to take her back where she belongs. Elisabeth is taken to a clinic in a high rise. As her roommate, Catharine (the late Catharine Greiner, another regular in the French adult film industry), shows her, everybody here has Elisabeth’s memory problems.

The situation is both sad and nightmarish. The people kept in the tower forget who they are, their names, sometimes even how to eat or walk. They make up memories for each other, to the point where they can’t tell whether what they do manage to remember is real or fabricated. Sometimes, their mental state becomes so bad that they are either suicidally depressed or homicidally violent.

While here, Elisabeth runs into Veronique again. While they cannot remember any of the specifics, both women intuitively know that they are very dear to each other. When Elisabeth discovers Robert’s phone number, she and Veronique, realizing that this is a potential outside ally, make plans to contact him about helping them escape. Robert, who has fallen for Elisabeth, jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, there is far more to the patients’ mental condition, and the authorities behind the clinic, than any of our heroes realize.

The Review: Night of the Hunted was one of my first introductions to the films of Jean Rollin. It is probably not the best place for those interested in his work to start, as it deviates somewhat from the fare he is known for. Also, if most of your movie experiences are in mainstream cinema, you will probably find it difficult and frustrating. Still, I find Night of the Hunted to be a pretty amazing movie, and my respect for it grows with each viewing.

Rollin shot Night of the Hunted at the end of a long era of his life, where he was forced to direct hardcore pornography to earn enough money to fund his own projects. This project started when his producer wanted him to do another cheap porn flick; but Rollin, tired of adult films, offered to do a horror movie instead, using porn actors, for the same amount of money. It was shot in nine days, on a very low budget. The end result is obviously flawed, yet it still turned out amazingly well in my opinion. In fact, the quality is even more amazing when one considers the constraints Rollin was dealing with during production.

For one thing, the acting is probably the best I’ve seen in a Rollin movie. Rollin’s films often face charges, not entirely unwarranted, of wooden acting and stilted dialogue. However, for Night of the Hunted Rollin picked actors that have definite talent, and it shows.

The primary example for this would have to be Brigitte Lahaie. Night of the Hunted was my first introduction to Ms. Lahaie; and, considering how first impressions tend to color our subsequent opinions, that would go a long way toward explaining how I’ve developed such high regard for the woman in such a short time. The truth is Lahaie can act. I’m not saying that she’s good for a porn star; I’m saying that by any reasonable standards she’s pretty amazing.

Lahaie’s role for Night of the Hunted is her first serious, non-pornographic major movie role; and it’s probably her best. The role of Elisabeth is a pretty complex one, a woman who loses her memory almost as she experiences things. In a sense she is an innocent, yet she is intelligent and can make decisions on her own. And that intelligence and strong will at the beginning provides a strong contrast to when she is finally overcome by her condition at the end, becoming effectively mindless. Ultimately, Elisabeth is a very tragic and memorable figure; one Lahaie is to be commended for.

Another memorable role is Dominique Journet as Veronique. Journet is almost as memorable as Lahaie, and the two women have great chemistry together. Veronique comes across as a childlike innocent, both charming and sympathetic. Also, it’s very easy to believe that she and Elisabeth share a very strong bond, even when they can’t remember what, exactly, that bond is. Journet is wonderful here, it’s sad she doesn’t seem to have done too much else. Plus, on a personal note, a gorgeous red-head who speaks French is a feminine ideal for me. When I figure out how to break the laws of time and space….

Another stand out performance is Catherine Greiner. To see her in this movie, you wouldn’t think of her as a porn actress. She is very sympathetic and touching in this role, it’s unfortunate that she didn’t go on to better things.

The atmosphere is partly what I have come to expect from Rollin’s movies, but partly something a bit different as well. On the one hand, there is still a dreamlike quality about Night of the Hunted, with some truly haunting shots and scenes. There are also a small handful of surreal moments, such as the one of Robert dancing with Solange. Finally, there is the feeling of loneliness and isolation that pervades most of Rollin’s work.

On the other hand, unlike most of his work, Night of the Hunted is an outright horror movie. There are no beautiful gothic castles, no romantic shots to take your mind off the horror. There are some haunting shots of Paris at night; but they, like the rest of the movie’s scenes, are cold and sterile. A feeling of doom and gloom hangs over the whole movie, with only the occasional scene of intimacy and tenderness between the characters to briefly alleviate it. There are a small handful of fairly brutal parts, the woman who has committed suicide by putting a pair of scissors through her eyes being the most notable. Finally, there is the ending, a truly bleak downer that cleverly inverts the old trope of the heroes striding triumphantly into the sunset.

Then there’s the sex and nudity. Some of this can just be passed off as Rollin being Rollin; female nudity, in both innocent and not so innocent scenarios, being prevalent in the majority of his films. However, there are also three fairly graphic soft-core sex scenes that don’t fit quite as comfortably into the movie. Rollin does his best with them, but it’s clear that they are mainly included for the benefit of the producer. My copy has, as extras, some hardcore outtakes Rollin shot just to be sure. I haven’t watched them, but hardcore scenes would definitely have messed up the pace of the film.

The first sex scene, the one between Elisabeth and Robert, actually plays to a theme running throughout the whole movie. Because the patients can only live in the now, physical intimacy of all kinds is one of the few avenues of connection available between them. This is why Elisabeth chooses to sleep with Robert, and Lahaie is a good enough actor to portray throughout the scene the desire to hold on to something, anything, for as long as possible.

The second is a bit more problematic; involving an orderly who takes advantage of the female patients. On the one hand, it does help highlight the patients’ nightmarish situation; but it is not needed for the story. Also, rape always makes me extremely uncomfortable, even when it is necessary to the storyline. The third sex scene, between two patients, is just gratuitous; although it quickly takes a turn for the perverse when the man’s psychosis kicks in mid-coitus.

But there is one thing that convinces me Rollin was trying hard not to create a piece of sleaze; or at least, one thing missing. No smutty porno, especially from this time and place, would be complete without a scene of lesbianism; and yet that is conspicuous by its absence. Elisabeth and Veronique quite obviously love and care for each other deeply, but there is nothing sexual about it whatsoever. This is especially noticeable for those familiar with some of Rollin’s other works, which often have female friendships containing a hint (or more) of the sexual to them.

Then there is a scene between Lahaie and Greiner which neatly addresses, and then sidesteps, the issue. Catherine, desperate for any kind of intimacy, makes a move on Elisabeth. The scene is very well done, with Catherine shy but persistent, and the expression on Elisabeth’s face clearly telegraphing what she’s thinking: “What the hell? Okay, do I want this? Well? No, I don’t believe I do.” And that’s the end of it, Elisabeth leaves to find Veronique.

For all its flaws, Night of the Hunted is still a well done piece of work. It’s not a good place to start with Rollin’s movies, but definitely worthwhile if you’re after something different. Just go in aware that what you will see is probably nothing like what you’re expecting, and you may be surprised.

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