Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg returns to form with the powerful and affecting THE HUNT / JAGTEN, an unflinching look at one community’s persecution of a man falsely accused of child abuse. L.K. Weston reviews the film and Timothy E. RAW interviews director Thomas Vinterberg.
"Lies, once they are accepted as true, take on a life of their own,
one that lasts long after the original falsehoods have been exposed."
It's hard to believe that fourteen years have passed since Thomas Vinterberg's Festen/The Celebration was unleashed on an unsuspecting cinemegoing public. The spark that lit the touchpaper of the Dogme '95 movement – and certainly the best of its output – Festen established Vinterberg as a filmmaker unafraid to take risks in terms of subject matter, delving into those risks in unflinching detail.
In the years following that auspicious debut, Vinterberg struggled to maintain his early success, veering wildly from his roots with It's All About Love, seeming to distance himself from the austerity of Dogme and any associations with his former collaborator, Lars von Trier. Despite Vinterberg's efforts to the contrary, it seems the two men are cut from the same cloth, inextricably linked, whether they like it or not. Vinterberg's Dear Wendy and A Man Comes Home both have a distinctly von Trier-esque feel, despite the fact that the former bears von Trier's name in the writing credits. The two directors have shared a similar career trajectory, and both those films were near mirror images of von Trier's output at the time. By 2010, Vinterberg appeared to be back on track, with Submarino hailed as a return to form. It was close, but not close enough; Vinterberg still had more to do.
His latest film, the Palme D'Or nominated, multi award-winning Jagten/The Hunt is that 'more.' Vinterberg's best since his debut, The Hunt shows the director in his masterful and brutal stride. The only beauty in the film is expressed through the work of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who also worked on Submarino) and Nikolaj Egelund's understated score. The subject, themes, and behaviour explored in the film are decidedly ugly. Like Festen, The Hunt explores the thorny issue of child abuse and is approached with the same level of sensitivity and candour that made Festen such an extraordinary film.
However, don't be deceived, The Hunt isn't just Vinterberg covering old ground in a bid to recapture success. Though the subject matter is by no means new, the way Vinterberg dissects human behaviour is. The years haven't dulled his perspective or his skills; they've sharpened them. Co-written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm (who worked previously with the director on Submarino), The Hunt is a bigger film in every sense. It's harsher, sharper, and has greater emotional resonance than its predecessor, playing out on a much larger scale. While Festen concentrated on one family, The Hunt is concerned with many, showing the effect of such abuse on a close-knit community, and every tiny wave of the ripple effect it creates.
If film is a mirror of society, then this one has shattered beyond repair, and Kindergarten teacher Lucas (an excellent Mads Mikkelson) is the unjustly accused recipient of all the bad luck. Popular within the community and clearly adored by his young charges, he's a lone figure despite his kind and sensitive nature. Recently divorced and estranged from his son, the target is painted on Lucas' back from the beginning. The headlines write themselves. However, unlike the men at the centre of Markus Schleinzer's Michael and Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman, Lucas isn't guilty. The star of Vinterberg's contemporary parable of moral panic is a genuinely innocent man done grievously wrong.
When Lucas responsibly rejects a gift from student Klara (Annika Wedderkopp, in a mature performance far beyond her years), the youngest daughter of his best friend Theo (Festen alum Thomas Bo Larsen), he inadvertently sets off a chain of events that sees his life come crashing down around his ears. Clearly nursing a crush, the lonely and neglected little girl spitefully accuses Lucas of abusing her. Before long, Lucas is under investigation, and his personal life is thrown into chaos. In a few short months, he loses his job, a burgeoning relationship with colleague Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), and long-sought-after contact with son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) into the bargain, but that's only the beginning. Slowly, the town begins to turn against him, no one willing to consider that Klara might be lying or that Lucas might be telling the truth. Increasingly isolated and angry, Lucas continues to try and defend himself in the face of escalating tensions within the community, powerless to stop them as they take things into their own hands.
Even in the worst of it, it's difficult to be angry at young Klara, because she too is an innocent (the angelic Wedderkopp is a casting masterstroke of many by Vinterberg's team). Indeed, Klara's actions can also be seen as a social commentary upon the loss of childlike innocence in an increasingly hostile and sexualised world. It strikes a deep emotional chord. One of many standout moments in the film is an early scene where Klara sees porn on her teenage brother Torsten's (Sebastian Bull Sarning) iPad. It's literal button-pushing by the two boys, hi-jinx just to shock and repulse, but with no malice intended. Later on, Torsten comes to understand the implications of his own mistake, and is moved to tears while he and Klara decorate the family home for the festive period.
There's only one villain here, and it isn't Lucas, but it isn't Klara either. It's the townspeople. The Hunt is Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Miller's The Crucible for the modern age, with both works serving as an inspiration and subtle presence, just as they were for von Trier in Dogville. Panic and hysteria spreads through the town like a virus. Their desperation is palpable, and the speed at which Lucas' life is destroyed is terrifying. The shock value – and perhaps the sensationalism – of The Hunt comes in witnessing the behaviour of the townspeople, and their vigilante, lynch mob mentality. Under the guise of protecting their town and their children, their vitriolic behaviour is accepted as normal, and Lucas continues to be ostracised. There are times, particularly towards the end of the film, where things veer toward the melodramatic, when all that Lucas suffers just seems that bit too much, and it's difficult to imagine when and where it might stop. Injustice seems too small a word to describe all that befalls him. Thankfully, the film remains grounded, stopping short of turning him into a martyr, but only just. There are moments when it feels like Lucas could meet a similar end to The Wicker Man's Sergeant Howie and no one would so much as blink.
A powerful, thought-provoking, and at times, incredibly moving film, The Hunt is not an easy one to watch. Lucas' descent into despair is harrowing; something made all the more difficult to endure because we know he's innocent. This nightmarish tale is carefully judged and deftly executed by Vinterberg's strong ensemble cast, and the experience of watching provokes a myriad of emotions from disbelief to anger and back again, sometimes within the space of a single scene. The Hunt is a rarity that will challenge, engage, and open up debate about abuse, and the consequences of it, long after the credits have rolled.
Director Thomas Vinterberg talks about the film to Timothy E. RAW at the 56th London Film Festival. The video has been optimised to be viewed full screen at 720p, which can be selected in the settings pop-up in the control bar.