Alexandre Franchi’s debut feature “The Wild Hunt” opens on a medieval fortress set in the midst of a bucolic vista lit by flaming torches, where we find King Argyle (Nicolas Wright) provoked into a duel with one of his own Viking warriors when he refuses to sanction a mission into lands occupied by the dreaded Shaman Murtagh (Trevor Hayes), even after learning that his enemy has kidnapped the Princess Evlynia -- the clan’s sacred Valkyrie -- in order that she should take up the symbolic role of the horned beast in his own ritualistic form of worship, which traditionally culminates in the orgiastic bacchanal known as the Wild Hunt. The warrior and the king begin to engage in combat, when all of a sudden the chest-thumping, fur-clad challenging combatant breaks off to query a point of order – surely his magical cloak of protection affords him special immunity from King Argyle’s sword blows? This claim and the following flurry of counter claims by the petulant king soon break into a full-scale dispute about the rules of engagement and whose special powers trump whose, and the viewer eventually realises that the whole scene is actually part of an elaborate modern-day role playing game. A referee steps in to adjudicate, and we become aware – with some relief -- that we’re not about to settle down to a straight Lord of the Rings-style fantasy picture after all.
This low budget independent flick from Quebec starts out as a quirky look at the trials and travails of twentysomething romantic relationships set against a backdrop of LARPing (Live Action Role Playing); this is not an pastime with which I was previously familiar but is apparently fairly popular in some places, where there have even been specially constructed medieval-style villages erected in remote woodland areas for participants to go at the weekend and dress up as Norse warriors, pretend to be elves and fairies or go native as woad-dyed leathered-up Celts, Vikings and Crusader knights partaking in a rule-bound fantasy world constructed out of bits of second-hand Icelandic Sagas, Victorian-spun Arthurian legend and medieval battle reconstruction. The whole film was shot on the site of one such establishment at Duche de Bicolline -- a semi-permanent LARP village in Canada – and real-life LARPers make up the warrior extras, giving this otherwise small-scale film an epic quality once we become fully immersed in this peculiar live action Second Life scenario -- in which following ‘decorum’ means that no one is allowed to step out of character for the entire duration of the bizarre activity.
The film starts out as gentle, wistful and humorous, but quickly takes a turn into the dark and the shockingly violent at its conclusion, as the narrative veers towards portrayal of a “Lord of the Flies” group dynamic in which ritual enactment turns nasty for real once it is threatened by people who no longer want to play the game, and thus pose a threat to its cohesiveness. The film then becomes a commentary on the social construction of reality, the potent importance of myth and ritual in an atomised age and the primitivism still underlying modern male/female relationships.
The role-playing warrior we saw in the opening scene, relaying his pseudo medieval-speak in a booming tone, is Bjorn (Mark Anthony Krupa, also the main screenplay writer and driving force behind the film), who turns out to be stridently living almost permanently in a fantasy world of Viking valour and sacred quests based in what he considers to be his Nordic heritage (even though he’s from Canada). Meanwhile his younger blonde-haired brother Erik (Ricky Mabe) lives in a cramped flat, in the sort of soulless, antiseptic grey Montreal made familiar from the early works of David Cronenberg, from which he nurses his sick father with only a dispiriting view of a pounding multi-carriage motorway just outside his window for company. To make matters worse, Erik’s sultry raven-haired girlfriend Lyn (a very hot Tiio Horn) is in the process of walking out on him for good, having become disillusioned with the couple’s stifling and increasingly strained relationship. When some LARPers, from the fantasy game village brother Bjorn had previously persuaded her to attend at weekends, where she plays his clan’s totem Princess Evlynia, show up to drive her off for another two-day battle in the wilderness wilds of Quebec, Erik follows her up there to try and sort things out, unaware that the site decorum demands that he should be required to dress up as a Viking, don a rubber sword and address the rest of the players there in character throughout his stay, on pain of being refused entry beyond the fortress gates.
Lyn’s motives for leaving seem bound up in the charismatic figure of Trevor Hayes’ Shaman Murtagh (tellingly, he’s one of the few gamers whose real world name is never made known). As part of the LARP fantasy narrative, the Shaman leader’s semi-primitive order of warriors control the dark woods beyond the clan fortress, where they hold atavistic rituals in the ruins of a mini Roman-era amphitheatre (emphasising the dramatic theatricality and role-playing nature of ritualistic worship in general). But Lyn seems attracted to his gaming persona outside of and beyond the performance aspect of their relationship, where she takes the part of the kidnapped Viking Princess forced to partake in a sacrificial ritual designed to set loose the forces of chaos which, themselves, are a re-enactment of the mythical Norse apocalypse known as Ragnarök.
In order to find her, a bemused Erik enlists the help of site referee Tamara (Claudia Jurt) and a newbie gamer called David (Kyle Gatehouse) who is fed up with having to be an elf (‘Elves are gay!’) and so is especially keen to grasp with both hands this unexpected opportunity for dressing up as a courtly knight on a secret quest into the heart of Murtagh’s forest; also leading the mission with a predictably strident determination is Erik’s estranged brother Bjorn. Erik reluctantly agrees to go along with this charade in order to facilitate a meeting with Lyn, which eventually takes place in a forest clearing while surrounded by Murtagh’s fearsome troupe of men, who particularly resent Erik’s mocking of their weekend gaming lifestyle choices.
But the real-world tensions between the various players and the requirements of the game’s decorum not to break out of character, eventually lead to a blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction, especially when it comes to the jealousies between love rivals Murtagh and Erik. When the former boyfriend seems to win out in the struggle for Lyn’s affections and she attempts to break character and abandon the game to leave with Erik, her ‘heretical’ rule-breaking provokes anger in the gamers who have been looking forward to this recreational time out from harsh urban reality for months. They have clearly bought into the whole romantic notion of a make-believe medieval world but are sublimating their day-today frustrations and their feelings of resentment at having its very basis challenged are now leaking back into the enactment of their violent warring fictional personas. Erik’s real-world ‘quest’ has become muddled with the original gaming scenario to such an extent by now that it has become impossible to end the ensuing Wild Hunt; real-world passions and romantic longings have been woven into the fabric of the group enthusiasm for legend and fantasy, and the mythical Nordic legends and rituals that underpin the drama being enacted in the forest start to have an eerie new resonance in the modern day lives of the participants, boiling over into a horrific violence and an untrammelled aggression that becomes a real-life fulfilment of the same fundamental themes of vengeance and sacrifice.
Franchi’s film deftly weaves the concerns of two worlds colliding with subtle ease and demonstrates there’s not much difference underpinning them. The emphasis on Nordic legend and the myth of Ragnarök seems to relate to the modern world in an environmental subtext where the soul-destroying nature of a modern lifestyle in which the need for ritual has been side-lined is touted as the vision of hell the old stories speak of when they tell of ‘a serpent encircling the world’. Cinematographer Claudine Sauvé contrasts the dull light and bland setting of the Montreal urban scenes with the enchanted atmosphere lit in green-gold autumnal forest hues, hazily burnished to look like the fantasy Gothic medievalism of the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites, particularly as seen in John William Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shallot. Musically, we’re given a varied but well-combined sonic palette of brooding authentic medievalism by the France-based ensemble Sequentia, under the directorship of harpist and vocalist Benjamin Bagby, together with rustic cues written by Vincent Hänni and Gabriel Scotti, mainly composed of the sound of mournful medieval harps and fluttering wooden flutes that occasionally break into an ambient mix of electric guitar drones. The sound design is vividly conjured to incorporate the forbidding single-note call of base horns that herald the descent into a frenzied orgy of violence that eventually escapes the bounds of the fantasy Wild Hunt, and results in real horror and pain for many of the characters.
Performances are pitched nicely and the film is well cast all the way down the line, beginning with writer Mark Kruper himself, playing Bjorn: a man escaping the responsibilities of caring for his sick father by loudly enacting them instead in febrile fantasy ‘quests’ to save Viking princesses for a cowardly king. Ricky Mabe is the typical loser semi-slacker character-type habitually found inhabiting low-budget indie flicks about vaguely indifferent male/female relationships, and is convincing as the depressed and downcast ‘hero’ who finds renewal in the rituals of enactment forced upon him. The woman for whom Erik is prepared to go to so much surreal trouble, played by Mohawk actress Kaniehtiio Horn (credited as Tiio Horn), is certainly alluring enough to make you understand why he’s not giving her up without a fight although, as with all such movie portrayals of inscrutable female beauty, is a tad thinly written and annoyingly mercurial without having much of a backstory to ground such indecisiveness. The character does get to take a dark and unexpected turn in the last half of the narrative though. Trevor Hayes is the other main player here and is similarly hard to get a grip on as the charismatic Murtagh; we don’t know that much about him until a shockingly violent coda at the very end of the film, when his capering as a mystical forest Shaman seems to be revealed as a form of escape from a rather remote and barren life back in the real world. Able support comes from Claudia Jurt as the busty referee Tamara, who helps Erik on his initial quest; Kyle Gatehouse as very likable as enthusiastic Knight-geek, David; and Nicolas Wright plays King Argyle as a typical English period film villain, but reverts to his normal, amusingly contrasting whinny sarcastic Canadian persona whenever forced to come out of character.
Stylistically this feels like two very different genres of films that don’t usually meet, welded together: the audience for the kind of observational, mildly humorous comedy-drama this starts off as will doubtless find the highly visceral and wince-inducing violence which occurs during the final act extremely off-putting, while the average horror crowd might find the slow-moving relationship stuff ponderous. There are portents of disquieting things to come early on though, when Erik has a recurring dream about a barn door at night flapping in the wind, which turns out to have major relevance to a climactic moment later on. The major symbol of the Wild Hunt is a diabolical-looking (diabolical as in devilish) horned mask which Lyn is forced to don as part of Murtagh’s sinister forest rituals and which again results in a disquieting atmosphere insinuating itself in amongst the otherwise quite whimsical LARPing escapades occurring elsewhere. This is ultimately an intriguing, unusual and thought-provoking take on the Lord of the Flies scenario with an ambivalent message about both the need for group ritual and its inherent dangers and the treat of intolerance for those who just can’t or won’t play the game by the same rules as everyone else.
The DVD from Network Releasing features a fairly nice transfer which, although soft-looking throughout, is clearly meant to look that way. The audio track consists of a decent stereo mix, and the extras are really just a light smattering of not-too-important bits & bobs which includes a theatrical trailer, a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, animated storyboards and a series of short making of/behind-the-scenes video pieces, which mainly consist of actors filmed larking in breaks between filming and actor-writer Mark A. Kruper engaging in various comic skits on the streets of Montreal, while fully kited-out as his character’s Viking alter ego. There's also a textless version of the opening and end credits to show off better the evocative illustrations that accompany Sequentia's title theme.