Hunted begins with a campfire story. A mother, credited as ‘the huntress’ (Simone Milsoochter), tells her eight-year-old son Jeremy (Vladimir Ryelandt) of a time long ago when, in this very wood, giant wolves saved an innocent girl from being sacrificed and eaten by the priest Nicodemus and his starving army of peasant crusaders. This story’s status as a fairytale is confirmed by its visualisation through highly stylised animation which contrasts with the real sylvan setting in which the huntress tells her story. At its end, the mother tells her son that while the wolves have long since left the forest, the men remain – and to underline her point, there is, just before the film’s title appears, a violent jump cut to home video footage of a heavy-breathing man in a balaclava staring menacingly into the camera.
The prologue of Hunted is programmatic. For while this third feature from Vincent Paronnaud – who co-directed Persepolis (2007) and Chicken With Plums (2011) with Marjane Satrapi, and went solo (under the name Winshluss) on Villemolle 81 (2009) – is set in our own times rather than the ancient age of the Huntress’ tale, it still expressly unfolds in the self-same woods, and Paronnaud makes it clear that he starts very much as he intends to finish, with a potent allegory of misogynistic, murderous patriarchy and wild feminine nature, of impotent predation and reversed victimhood.
The protagonist Eve (Lucie Debay) may belong to contemporary times, she may work in construction – claiming and taming for civilisation the lands on the edge of the forest – but she is, like the heroine of the huntress’ story, beleaguered by men: her bullying boss; her controlling boyfriend; an unwelcome suitor in a bar; and finally a psychopathic rapist-murderer (Arieh Worthalter, seductive and sadistic in equal measure) and his accomplice (Ciaran O’Brien) who, to different degrees, want her to star in their latest snuff video.
As the terrified Eve flees these two men in the woods, she enters a wilderness of mythic archetypes. Maybe it is the distinctive red hoodie that she wears, aligning her woodland adventures to those of a famous fairytale heroine. Maybe it is her very name, associated as it is with the Biblical first woman. Or maybe it is the way, as in a folk legend or a children’s story (or a Disney cartoon), that animals – a boar, a deer, a crow, a dog – keep offering her mystical assistance. All this unfolds in the era of cars and mobile phones and Tasers and paintball, but it also charts the retreat of this thoroughly modern woman into a primal space where, covered in scars and warpaint, she can scream and rage and kick against the maliciously male-dominated status quo, even as she encounters a now teenaged Jeremy (Ryan Brodie) undergoing his own horrific rites of passage, and as her own story catches up violently with the one previously told by Jeremy’s mother.
Cat-and-mouse in the woods is a cliché of horror – yet what new films like John Hyams’ Alone (2020), Emre Akay’s Av: The Hunt (2020) and now Hunted do is take this well-worn trope and turn it into an arboreal arena for an ongoing battle of the sexes. Though (mostly) live-action, Paronnaud’s film embraces its own surreal artifice – an effect which is only enhanced by a cast of oddly anglophone players whose wildly different accents reflect a Belgian/French/Irish co-production more than any actual single location. Here fantasy and reality converge, and the wolves of story, though perhaps somewhat more domesticated, definitely still exist to provide better company than the men.
© Anton Bitel