Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: La Nuit des Traquées (The Night of the Hunted)

Long considered a failure since its very brief theatrical release in the late summer of 1980, La Nuit des Traquées has slowly but surely built a small but dedicated group of followers who find it to be among Jean Rollin’s almost great films. Containing perhaps the finest performance Brigitte Lahaie has ever given for the screen, La Nuit des Traquées, or The Night of the Hunted as it is more commonly known, is one of the key if often overlooked films of Rollin’s career. The fact that it is indeed a very flawed work that could have been much more, had budgetary and time constraints not worked against it, makes its pleasures all the more resonate and powerful.

Coming on the heels of the very elegant and colorful Fascination, The Night of the Hunted’s cold and clinical feel will come as a shock to even the most ardent of Rollin’s followers. Shot astonishingly in less than ten days on a budget as small as the his Robert Xavier films, the fact The Night of the Hunted is so utterly distinctive is a triumph all its own. Rollin admits in the engrossing commentary on Encore’s DVD box that the film is, “sort of a patchwork”, but the tapestry he presents here is a rich if ragged one, and worth another look for those who dismissed it originally.

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 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.” It was a gutsy move for Rollin, who once more had his back against the wall artistically and financially, but it paid off and it would be a couple of years before he would have to work as Xavier again.

Since the film was to be shot for the same money in about the same time period as one of his adult pictures, Rollin looked to pay back some of the friends he had made from his Xavier period and give them a more legitimate opportunity. He writes in the wonderful booklet that accompanies Encore’s set, “I was treating myself to entrust roles to some friends from the X times”, a fact that makes The Night of the Hunted one of the most noble productions in Rollin’s career.

Rollin’s idea to cast actors mostly associated with adult films was a genius one, as it not only allowed him to help out some friends he thought had legitimate talent, but it also helped him keep production cost down. Rollin writes in Encore’s booklet, “the beautiful Rachel Mhas had an important role, just like Alain Plumey”, and, “the same goes for the young Cathy Grenier, who would at last be able to show her acting skills.” The Night of the Hunted is indeed one of the best acted of all of Rollin’s films, a fact that shows how instinctively right he could be regarding his film’s casting.

Rollin recalls a story in the pages of Encore’s booklet that perhaps sheds some light on the oppressively heavy feel and tone that hangs over The Night of the Hunted. He details the attempted casting of a young actress he was very fond of named Martine Delva. He recalls that, “she was very young, very pretty and very likable.” And Rollin became so attached to her that, “her presence had become essential” as they were finding locations close to the La Defense District in France. Rollin was shattered though when just a couple of days later the young actress had a car accident that left her unconscious, which left him with no choice but to cast striking red-head Dominique Journet in the key role opposite Lahaie. The accident for Martine Delva turned out to be more serious than anyone knew and within a week she was dead. Rollin wrote of how heartbroken he was attending her funeral with producer Lionel Wallman especially, “since what happened to Martine was exactly what happened to the character she was about to play in The Night of the Hunted.” Delva’s untimely and tragic passing would have a huge effect on Rollin and would cast a dark shadow over The Night of the Hunted, which helps give it an underlying power not found in some of his other works.

Another interesting note about the casting is Rollin’s use of a couple of minor figures from the famed movement that he had chronologically followed in France, the legendary New Wave. So, joining a cast of mostly adult performers is Bernard Papineau , whom Rollin recalled had, “taken part in many Nouvelle Vague films.” It wouldn’t be the first, nor the last time, Rollin would cast New Wave actors in a film he was working on but combining them with France’s other important, if far less talked about major movement, was an interesting choice, and it is yet another factor that makes The Night of the Hunted an even more intriguing film than most give it credit for.

Cast in place, the behind the scenes crew came into the picture extremely quickly as well. The film’s score is courtesy of a Philippe Brejean (Gary Sandeur), a composer who had just worked in adult films previously and has continued to do so predominately since (although he did score Rollin’s Killing Car in 1993.) Jean-Claude Couty delivers the film’s chilly cinematography exceedingly well, and I believe this marked the only time Couty worked with Rollin.

While Rollin is often a director noted for his stylistic use of methods taken from the silent cinema and older serials, The Night of the Hunted recalls a much newer filmmaker in its chilling frames. If The Grapes of Death had recalled both Romero and Grau’s works from the late sixties and early seventies, then The Night of the Hunted recalls the work of Canadian David Croneneberg’s early works, specifically Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). While I don’t believe Rollin has mentioned Cronenberg’s films before (and it could be a coincidence) he absolutely could have seen both Shivers and Rabid in their European runs in the seventies, and I find it hard to watch the very clinical and cold The Night of the Hunted without thinking of Cronenberg’s early austere masterworks.

Perhaps it is the Cronenberg influence I detect that makes me admire The Night of the Hunted so much, but even more I believe it is the work of Brigitte Lahaie that keeps me returning to the film time and time again. If Lahaie had been memorable in The Grapes of Death and Fascination, then she is downright amazing in The Night of the Hunted. It is a tribute to Lahaie’s work here that Rollin himself becomes mesmerized again by her while recording his commentary, and his clear reservations about the film give way to a sharp admiration for his most haunting lead actress as the talk progresses. He notes, “she becomes a real actress here…and she worked very hard to become one.” He also adds more pointedly that, “she becomes that girl for whom everything is disappearing”, and “she was so interesting to film.” If The Night of the Hunted is finally not one of Rollin’s great films, then Brigitte Lahaie’s work in it almost transforms it into one. It’s a significant performance by an actress who has still yet to get her due as one of France’s most interesting talents to come out of the seventies.

I have to admit though that The Night of the Hunted is for all of its great qualities a flawed work at best. Rollin states on the commentary track that, “I don’t think think it is a very good film and it is probably one of my worst.” While I think he is being way too hard on it, there is no question that The Night of the Hunted is a choppy, damaged work that needed a lot more time and a lot more financing. The editing suffers terribly throughout and the producer forced soft-core sex scenes only add to its draggy nature. Finally the work just feels incomplete. Rollin states on the commentary that if he could remake just one of his films, it would be The Night of the Hunted, and I see his point as this could be a truly great film but, as it is, it is a truly fractured work. It is still, despite all the problems, a very striking film and it lingers in the thoughts long after the credits have rolled. Rollin summed it up best himself in his introduction to the film in Virgins and Vampires when he wrote, “When I see this film I feel a sense of unease. As if the film contains the seed of a great film that was never actually realized.”

The Night of the Hunted had an even worse release than Fascination. Rollin wrote in Virgins and Vampires, “The film didn’t do very well”, and, “it was booed at The Festival in Sitges” He did note though that the film found success with certain underground movements when it played at a Festival in Trieste, where it was applauded and viewed as a highly subversive work.

While The Night of the Hunted has quietly become a minor fan favorite, it has never really caught fire with genre critics as a whole. One notable exception is Scott Grantham, who called the film “Poignant and Poetic” in his excellent review which can be found in Video Watchdog 53. Grantham is also the first critic, I believe, to note the apparent Cronenberg influence on the film, and his review should be searched out by fans.

The Night of the Hunted has been released on several different DVDSs around the world with the superior one being Encore’s two disc set, a beautiful and exhaustive package which features the aforementioned commentary with Rollin and the lovely booklet. The disc also contains a second commentary with Rollin and Lahaie, an interview with Brigitte, plus additional interviews with Wallman and Alain Plumey. Rounding out the disc is an excellent slide show of stills and behind the scenes shots, as well as a reel of harder deleted scenes that Rollin prepared to satisfy the producers of the film.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent stuff! I jut watched Night of the Hunted for the first time recently, and the handling of the story reminded me in a way of LIVING DEAD GIRL--not in particulars, mind you, but in the way Rollin seemed to craft almost a dark fairy tale around very real situations, giving them added depth and power that a "realistic" portrayal of the same would have lacked. In Living Dead Girl, I see it as a consideration of mourning, of being unable to let go of a loved one even though doing so would be the best thing.

Here of course it's the impermanence of memory, and how one of the sad by-products of being alive is that we eventually forget things that were terribly important to us--faces, events, even loved ones. Lahaie's character is suffering just this problem, it seems to me, and I too found it poignant and poetic in that way.

I'm probably not expressing myself correctly, but there you go. I love this film. Great write up!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Vicar for the interesting and very nice comments. They were great to read. I love the film as well and, warts and all, it is actually one of my favorite Rollin films.

Keith said...

Great photos and writeup. You continue to amaze me with the wonderful posts you do here. Keep up the good work.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Keith,
I'm glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate your comments. Hope you keep enjoying my tribute to Jean and his films.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.