Friday, March 4, 2011

La nuit des traquées (1980)

La nuit des traquées (1980) is a sad film. I had not seen the film in quite a while, and it was the first film that I had seen of Jean Rollin's since his death. There is an overwhelming sense of melancholy to the whole production. I pulled my Encore DVD of the film for no particular reason and gave it a spin. I watched it several times over successive nights. I suppose I wanted to see if the sadness came from me or was an emotion elicited from watching the film. "When I see this film," says Rollin, "I feel a sense of unease. As if the film contains the seed of a great film that was never actually realized." (from Virgins and Vampires, edited by Peter Blumenstock, Essays by Jean Rollin, Crippled Publishing, Germany, 1997, p.93)
Robert (Alain Duclos) is driving on a dark night during a storm in the countryside. A young woman, dressed only in her night gown, steps out on to the road. Robert stops to help the young woman. She has no memory, save her name, Elisabeth (Brigitte Lahaie), and Robert agrees to drive her to Paris for help. Robert takes Elisabeth to his flat in Paris, and the two fuck. Robert has to leave to go to the office and requests that Elisabeth wait for him. While Robert is gone, an older gentleman and his lady assistant arrive to reclaim Elisabeth and take her back to her home--the "Black Tower," a modern high-rise building located in a block of them in the outskirts of Paris. She is a patient there.

With La nuit des traquées, Rollin has been compared to David Cronenberg, especially his film Shivers (1975). The two films certainly share superficial qualities, and the comparison is not without merit. The "Black Tower" setting and the physical affliction of its residents (which also affects Elisabeth) which is causing their behavior to change are notable similarities. However, beyond these similarities, I think the comparison ends. Elizabeth's affliction is a romantic one in signature Rollin style: a disease which removes memories. The modern high-rise setting is often focal, because it is far from Rollin's previous settings, such as the ruinous castle in Requiem pour un vampire or the little getaway villa of Fascination, for example.
Natalie Perry, "in a very moving scene that gave the film its true meaning," (Virgins, p. 93) appears in the hallway of the Black Tower in front of Elisabeth and her roommate, portrayed by Catherine Greiner. Perry's character knows that she has a child and does not know where her child is. She cannot remember the sex of her child nor its name. She only has this innate connection, beyond her memory, that she has had a child and that her child is somewhere, alone. Elisabeth and Catherine are speechless and are overcome with the awkwardness of being so moved so suddenly by such emotion. Catherine tells Perry's character that her child's name is Alice, and this statement brings comfort to Perry's character. Its comfort is not lasting, as Perry's character only takes five or ten steps away, and asks again what her child's name is. Catherine tells Elisabeth that we can make memories for each other--making memories as temporary comfort for a debilitating condition that is consuming them. Grenier's character, in addition to suffering the memory loss, has also lost the ability of her fine motor skills, like undoing her buttons or unfastening her belt. "Cathy Grenier was a real actress. She dreamed about playing and worked for a long time on the scene where Brigitte feeds her with a spoon. This scene is a great moment, very moving and she is excellent in it," says Rollin. "I resisted to the bitter end facing André Samarcq [the producer] who insisted on me cutting it out at the editing." (from the supplemental booklet included in the Encore DVD set, p. 19) The scene which Rollin is describing is during a sequence where Elisabeth and Catherine are having dinner. Elisabeth watches as Catherine cannot bring the spoon of soup to her lips without spilling it. Without words, Elisabeth sits next to her friend and feeds her. Like Perry's sole scene, this sequence is especially tender and moving. So much so, after viewing, one can see why Rollin put up a fight to keep it in La nuit.

While the wonderfully-titled "Black Tower" is interesting on a visual level (just odd and out of place and disorienting), the actual location of the film perhaps hides the more interesting influence over La nuit. André Samarcq offered this production to Rollin to be filmed “within ten days or so in the La Défense district” with “complete freedom,” save the forced inclusion of several soft-core sex scenes. (Encore booklet, p.3, and Virgins, p. 93) Rollin chose to cast his friends from the x-rated movie industry, because “at the time I was rebellious,” he adds. “I was particularly bothered by the disdain that the mainstream movie people displayed towards their porno colleagues.” (Virgins, p.93) The building was an office building named “Fiat Tower,” where Rollin and crew would come in minutes after the workers left at five p.m. and film all night. (Encore booklet, p. 5) Rollin tells this fantastic story about the location:

During “La nuit des traquées”, the top floor of the tower was called the X floor. It was empty and probably served as junk space; you can guess what the crew used it for. There was a storm once and I was in the lift, looking for a location for a scene. I was aiming for the top floor. It must have been just past midnight, I was alone. The wind was howling and roaring in the lift shaft. Suddenly, I clearly felt the tower rocking. Anyone who has never found himself alone at night in the centre of a dancing tower doesn’t know what it’s like to feel scared. I learned later that the towers are erected on neoprene supports and that it’s normal that they move during a storm. But I didn’t know this at the time. So, the automatic doors open and the actors and actresses are thrashing around restlessly on the floor in front of me. I go down one floor, leave the lift of terror and climb down again through the staircase. The tower is still moving under my feet...” (Encore booklet, p. 5)

A beautiful story (it serves as an example also of how fine of a writer Rollin was). There is also a little joke in the story, as well, tied into the “X floor.”
Nonetheless, Samarcq’s demands upon Rollin show its influence in La nuit des traquées and alter its outcome. The lengthy sex scene between Lahaie and Duclos goes on way too long for most viewers. In addition, the scene is way too much for most viewers. To be totally frank, Brigitte Lahaie is too much for most viewers. Lahaie is one of the most sensuous actresses to ever grace the screen. She possesses an overwhelming and powerful sexuality. She also plays all of her roles with a true vulnerability and genuineness. Few possess these traits. However, to encounter a scene like this early in the film, many might determine the film for something it is not--a pure sex film. The subsequent sex scenes in La nuit might be borne from Rollin’s rebelliousness against Samarcq: one is a scene of violence, a rape scene shot in the same manner as a consensual sex scene; and the other is a sex scene ending in violence, performed by two ancillary characters (to be fair, ancillary characters pop up in and around Rollin’s films so often, they can hardly be called ancillary as their quantity removes their ancillary nature). The sex scenes are there, but they’re not titillating, save Lahaie and Duclos’s scene. These exploitive scenes punctuate La nuit loudly, making it unique in that respect. I’ve never valued tonal consistency (or any consistency, for that matter) in film, as I believe an artist is completely free to do as he/she wishes with the art. However, the tender scenes don’t play well with the exploitative scenes--they stand together like bullies and victims forced uncomfortably together for a school photo.

La nuit has some beautiful scenes. The opening sequence where Duclos encounters Lahaie in the rain is one of Rollin’s most beautiful in his entire filmography. Rollin writes, “I was so pleased with this beginning of the film that I was considering to open all my future films with a similar scene.” (Encore booklet, p. 6) Dominique Journet, as Véronique, is also present in this opening scene, and as in this one, she steals virtually every scene that she’s in. Véronique is arguably the most tragic character in La nuit, solely because Lahaie’s Elisabeth is focal. That is to say, since such a mystery surrounds Véronique, her emotional scenes have much more resonance. When she is alone and grasping her knees in a somber state, her emotion comes solely from her--not from some previous plot revelation or a character-building scene. Her character also has the saddest ending. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the music by Philippe Bréjean: it’s simple and haunting. He really captured the melancholy mood of the film. It has to be heard rather than described with words. 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.


lights in the dusk said...

An excellent post; very well written and sourced, as usual. I enjoyed reading it.

Alex B. said...

This will always be my favourite Rollin. I nearly cried when first saw it.

Hans A. said...

@lights in the dusk--thanks so much for the compliments. I greatly appreciate it!

@Alex--this might be my favorite also. Although, La Rose de Fer and Requiem are contenders. There are even more sad stories behind this one, Alex. Apparently the actress that Rollin cast before Lahaie took the role died before filming. The film is dedicated to her in the opening credits. The Rollin Encore DVDs are essential.

Thank you again, gentlemen, for taking the time to read and leave a comment.

Alex B. said...

Really? I didn't know. Saw this via the Redemption edition, which is full-screen and, as far as I remember, doesn't have a dedication in the beginning.
I agree that the opening scene is very strong.
On stylistic level my favourite Rollin has got to be The Rape of the Vampire. On emotional I love La nuit des traquees and also Lips of Blood.
And La Rose de Fer is a very consistent work, you've got to admire that.

Ben said...

That's a brilliant review Hans - thanks for writing it!

I watched "Nuit des Traquees" for the first time a couple of months back and found it incredibly upsetting -- it's shocking how far outside the 'comfort zone' of Rollin's other films it takes things, and as you mention, the disconnection between the sex/gore footage and the really harrowing/challenging stuff is very uncomfortable.

It's a really incredible film that I think a lot of more mainstream film fans could have appreciated if only it wasn't presented in such compromised, exploitation-heavy form - really tragic, but it's still a unique vision pulled from really marginal circumstances; I wish more people who don't consider Rollin a 'serious' director would/could see it.

Hans A. said...

Thanks, Ben. I hope, also, that more people see Rollin's work, but I doubt it. There are few, like us, who really appreciate him.

I'm also going to be interested in your write-up on the film, Ben, as I've really enjoyed your writing on Rollin. Take care and good to hear from you.

Michael Williams said...

Great post. I have had this film for quite a while, but never been able to start it; now I have a reason to watch it.

BTW, beautiful site