In this film, Rollin eschews his familiar Gothic settings and vampire lovers to focus on memory loss and its implications for human sexuality. Gary D Rhodes takes a close look at the film's style and subject.
Having watched La Nuit des traquées (Night of the Hunted, 1980) on several occasions, it is increasingly difficult for me to place it within the larger whole of director Jean Rollin's work. There are no vampires, no decaying cemeteries and no castles in ruins. Sexuality is once again a key aspect of the film, but it is presented in a manner far removed from his other films. And though La Nuit des traquées is overall different than his better-known productions, it possesses a wonderful and wonderfully disconcerting charm of its own. In tandem with its bizarre storyline, the film offers a largely unique meditation on the importance and yet fictional nature of human memory.
The "hunt" referred to in the film's title does indeed begin at night. Elisabeth (Brigitte Lahaie) is an escapee from a mental facility. Robert (Vincent Gardnere), a young man who works in the same city, finds her as she flees from her medical captors. She remembers nothing of who she is, and so Robert takes her back to his apartment. "We belong to this world. The only one that exists. The world of the present moment," Elisabeth explains to him. Enamored of her new friend, she makes clear that he has become her entire existence: "You are the only memory I have right now," she tells him. But after Robert leaves the apartment for only a few minutes, her memory of even him quickly fades.
Elisabeth's doctor finds her at the apartment and returns her to the mental ward. She plots again to leave, as the inmates are surrounded by both the doctor's insensitivity and by the violence of their own acts. In the meantime, Robert, smitten by her charms, attempts a rescue. But all is finally lost due to the problem plaguing Elisabeth. We learn that radiation poisoning has caused regressive memory loss among all the inmates. The condition occurs in an irreversible and swift manner. By the end of the film, Elisabeth's mind is completely useless as she and Robert walk away from the doctor together. She is essentially dead, and Robert—having been shot by the doctor during the escape attempt—is himself dying. Given that the government is keeping the radiation scandal quiet, the memory of Elisabeth and Robert and all that has happened will itself be lost.
A marked discordance
Against this unusual and occasionally poignant narrative, Rollin presents a fascinating contrast through the cinematic style he adopts. For example, the rapidly fleeting memories of the hospital's inmates are presented in shots of very long duration, shots which cause the audience to focus intently on the visuals and remember them in a way the inmates could never do. To be sure, this marked discordance between narrative and visual style may simply be the outcome of Rollin's limited budget, with fewer camera setups occurring simply for the efficiency of production time.
Regardless, the lengthy shot durations create an uneasy tension throughout the film. Probably the most noticeable instance of the slow pacing occurs when Elisabeth and Robert make love at his apartment. Both are disrobed, and as the lovemaking unfolds approximately five minutes of the film transpires. The scene possesses relatively little dialogue, which qualitatively seems to add to the running time.
A particularly notable shot in the sequence is one that lasts approximately two minutes, fascinating in both its sheer length and for the breadth of action that it involves. The shot begins on a flower vase, panning screen right to a medium shot of the duo in bed. After several seconds pass, the camera zooms into Elisabeth's face to capture both her emotional ecstasy and her dialogue about her hopes of remembering Robert forever. Then the camera zooms outward to a longer focal length to show both of their bodies on the bed. All of this occurs in a single take.
The use of the camera when the two make love at times lingers on Elisabeth's physical form, in particular her hips and chest. Other shots in the film also have a tendency to emphasise the female body. For example, a strangled woman found in a small swimming pool is nude; the camera tilts up over her body. More than simply depicting her without clothes, the camera accentuates and indeed objectifies her genitalia and breasts, much as a pornographic film would do. And indeed, the star of La Nuit des traquées, Brigitte Lahaie, had herself worked in pornography.
These visuals serve to connect sexuality and the inmates' memory loss, an idea that the plot also repeatedly reinforces. When roommate Catherine (Catherine Greiner) attempts to hold Elisabeth's breast and become intimate, for example, she outwardly suggests that physical pleasures are all that remain to the inmates. One of the mentally ill men who seems to have a better memory than most takes physical advantage of those women in the ward who can't remember where their bedrooms are. And Elisabeth herself likens her sexual experience with Robert to a loss of virginity, because she can no longer remember prior lovers or physical encounters.
"Everything my body has done before this moment has been forgotten," she suggests to him. La Nuit des traquées shows memory loss to be the loss of one's entire world, but yet at the same time that loss is highly sexualised. It is as if the inmates cling to sexuality as a sign of life and living as their own worlds rapidly evaporate.
But these kinds of narrative and thematic connections occur during a film that is intentionally disorienting at times. When Elisabeth is taken back to the mental facility from Robert's house, for instance, the camera pans around the cityscape. Though very urban, no people can be seen. The camera continues to pan and ends up almost back where it started, very close to a full 360-degree rotation. As the shot reaches its end, it tilts on a downward axis to reveal a parking garage where we see Elisabeth under the control of the facility's doctor and his assistant. The rotating pan of the shot visually disorients the audience, which as a result creates yet another new connection: more audience common ground with Elisabeth and her plight.
La Nuit des traquées poses a variety of important questions and constructs a very nightmarish world in its attempt to answer them. True, the film is marred by an occasional lack of narrative depth, whether in the quick and unsatisfying explanation of radiation poisoning or in the cardboard character of the doctor. At the same time, La Nuit des traquées is sufficiently unique, not only among Rollin's work but in the cinema generally, to impact viewers' memories in a way they will not soon forget. Even after the success of Memento (2001), Rollin's film remains one of the most intriguing fictional treatises on the subject of memory and memory loss.
Gary D Rhodes
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