Wednesday, November 21, 2012

‘Jagten' ('The Hunt') (2012) directed by Thomas Vinterberg, 21st November 2012

Cinema can be an exceptionally cruel world to its inhabitants. To be a character trapped in a film is to face extraordinary ordeals with no promise of redemption at the end.   Watching a film like this can feel like you're enjoying pulling the legs off a spider, experiencing a vicarious sadism in just how bad things can get for someone.  That 'someone' in 'The Hunt' is Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a divorced nursery school teacher trying to win custody of his teenage son.  He’s respected in his small community, great with kids and on the verge of regaining the loving family life he desires.  This hopeful positivity collapses when one of the children he’s looking after falsely accuses him of child abuse.  The accusations spiral out of control, and Lucas becomes a pariah, hated and feared.

Watching ‘The Hunt’ is not an especially cheery experience.  I went into it knowing very little about the plot other than that Very Bad Things were going to happen to the central character.  The film begins by giving us an extended look at the way this small town Danish community functions.  We see how well Lucas gets along with the local children; he leads them home when they’re lost and empathises with them if their parents are arguing.  He knows all the fathers well and we see them happily hunting and drinking together.  Throughout these tranquil scenes there’s a solid and sinister background hum.  The gods of cinema are capricious; what is the point of showing us something functioning and healthy if not to then infect it and allow us to clinically observe its painful thrashing?  With this in mind, the disgrace of Lucas begins to feel like a crushing inevitability.  From the moment the innocently vindictive child Klara (Annika Wedderkopp, a brilliant child actor) opens her mouth to accuse her teacher the die is cast.  With grim relentlessness the lie snowballs, with each repetition gaining more victims and sick new details. 

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen)
The instigator of the lie that fuels the events of ‘The Hunt’ is a young child and Vinterberg quickly absolves her of blame.  She recognises that she’s done a bad thing, but when she tries to take it back nobody listens to her.  The adults assume that she’s repressing traumatic memories and ironically it’s their actions and words that construct the reality they fear most.

As we watch the parents spinning this lie into something bigger and scarier by the day we’re confronted by an uneasy fact: on some level these people want Lucas to be a child molester.  It’s a fiction that suits them, one they’re happy to believe in, contribute to and embellish.  They’re told to keep an eye out for extremely vague symptoms of suspected child abuse in their own children like nightmares and depressed behaviour.  All of this ‘evidence’ mounts up against Lucas, he becomes exactly what the town needs to despise: an outsider, an interloper, a monster: the other.  

This film has been interpreted as a portrait of the breakdown of a community, but I disagree.  This community does not break down, if anything they become more tightly knit when given a communal hate target.  In the opening scenes we see married couples bitterly arguing with each other, but as Lucas becomes a scapegoat these arguments cease.  Throughout this picturesque little Danish town there’s an undercurrent of repressed violence, for example the walls of the houses are covered with the heads and skins of shot animals.  How thin is the line between comfortable bourgeois life and the pack psychology of the violent animal?

Lucas and his ex-best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen)
Humanity gets a pretty rough ride in ‘The Hunt’, instinctively this community operates under an unthinking stupidity.  People believe what they want to believe and if the story starts to look a bit shaky they’ll unthinkingly create a new set of lies to reinforce it.  This process is incredibly frustrating to watch, particularly when we see the adults putting words into the mouths of the children while they're being interviewed. 

Scenes like these demonstrate how adults can exploit the blurriness between reality and fantasy for young children.  Klara knows she is lying when she makes the initial accusation and tries to take it back.  She’s reassured by the adults that this really did happen to such an extent that eventually she can’t be sure that she wasn't abused.  A similar process used on the other children, who begin concocting a detailed story about Lucas abusing them in his basement.  The film tells us that children are mentally malleable, so the horrifying conclusion is that these parents are giving their children false memories of abuse.  If they have memories that they believe to be true what difference does it make whether they were actually abused?

Grethe (Susse Wold) and Klara (Annika Wedderkopp)
In the centre of this whirlwind of vicious gossip and recrimination sits Lucas.  Mikkelsen is intensely fragile here.  The role of Lucas could easily be used an excuse for an actor to give an emotionally overwrought, histrionic, Oscar baiting performance, but he underplays almost everything.  This is a man that is trying to keep himself together and conduct himself with dignity even as his world turns against him.  For the most part he's remarkably composed, behaving with a heartbreaking naivety that gives way to suppressed paranoia. This makes his moments of weakness and anger that much more effective.  These are few and far between, generally Lucas endures the misery inflicted on him by this town with a numb stoicism.  There are moments in the film where he is almost Christlike in his suffering.  In one scene the townspeople can barely bring themselves to look at his bruised and bleeding face.  Here, rather than appearing pathetic and beaten, Mikkelsen has a palpable aura of holy martyrdom.

Vinterberg is a careful and precise director.  The mental deterioration of Lucas is matched with the increasingly untidiness of both his appearance and his home.  Dishes sit in the sink undone and piles of dirty clothes lay haphazardly on the stairs.  Lighting also plays a large part in adding atmosphere, generally the darker the film gets, the darker the colour palette.  This is especially evident in the way Vinterberg lights the children.  When they’re lying and scared they are shrouded in shadow, lit faintly and eerily from below. 

You'd be miserable too if you were him.
‘The Hunt’ is a great film, but very hard to watch.  It functions as a useful lesson on the importance of scepticism, and the need for evidence and proof rather than gossip and hearsay.   Even so as the film ends it hasn’t given us a solution to the situation it presents.  We can't ignore allegations of abuse made by children, allegations that by their nature won’t necessarily have any evidence behind them.  Equally we cannot destroy people’s lives on the basis of wild accusations and hysteria.  The film ends on a discomforting and depressing note.  The stupidly paranoid behaviour showcased in this film is not unique to these characters, it’s embedded deep within the human psyche and will never, ever go away.

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