DEATH OF A STAG (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1951)

Russian emigré Dimitri Kirsanoff’s alternative titled La mort du cerf and Une chasse à courre (A Hunt), from France, is a post-Second World War study of a traditional hunt. The pursuit of a stag finds a cross-cutting parallel in the felling of a tree in the forest. Both activities represent an environmental assault; on one level, they are of course unrelated, separate, distinct, but on another level they acquire a dreamy causality: the elimination of the tree shrinks the stag’s habitat, dismantling a part of its protection and helping to clear the path of its hunters’ sight in pursuit of it. This is a brilliant 12-minute black-and-white film.
     During the hunt, for which the hunters are elegantly dressed as though on inward display for one another, a hideous example of upper-class social incest, we catch glimpses of the prey in long-shot. The stag thus becomes a dream-figure, the reality of which becomes indistinct as the hunters glut on themselves as the only reality their warped perception allows. These decadents are everything to themselves; the animal is nothing to them except insofar as it occasions their show of brute strength. The dreamy long-shots of their quarry are eventually juxtaposed with the stone-cold closeup of the bagged carcass.
     What overkill. This one lovely, delicate creature is hunted down by the ritualistically rehearsed army of hunters accompanied by a platoon of dogs, their tails upright like bayonets and wagging. It is a “mass murder” where the “mass” refers to the “humans” and dogs rather than to the number of victims. The “mass murder” is also gratuitous: killing for leisure and pleasure. Given our identification with the victim, what we see bankrupts the hunters of their humanity and confers this valuation, as metaphor, on the animal instead.

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