Language: Danish, English
“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”. I would loathe to adopt the words of Adolf Hitler on any matters of authority, however it presents such a chilling allusion to Thomas Vinterberg’s latest Danish drama The Hunt (Jagten) that I would loathe even more not to acknowledge it under the circumstances. As The Hunt would demonstrate, it is often not the repetition of the lie, but the perception of unlikelihood of perjury from the vulnerable, which carries far greater weight in conveying an air of veracity.
The Hunt (Best Foreign Language Film nominee in the 86th Oscar) shows a fine return to form for Vinterberg (ostensibly the darling child of Danish cinematography), whom has arguably risen from more than a decade quagmired in the creative doldrums. Partnering with another Danish royalty in the form of Mads Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair; After the Wedding, both of which were also former contenders in the Oscar Best Foreign Language Film category), the film is disturbing in its dark subject matter and equally as potent in its delivery.
The plot centres around Lucas (Mikkelsen), a forty-something divorcee leading a reticent life in a small town in Denmark. Despite a low-profile existence as a local kindergarten employee (a demotion in life from a secondary school teacher due to recent closure of the school), there appears to be green shoots in his life: a nascent romance with a fellow teacher, Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport); a resolve to seek more meaningful custody of his son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom) and a warm friendship with Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) whose young daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) is frequently under his care. He enjoys popularity amongst his pupils and the hunting fraternity, whose companionship underpins the bucolic scene that is often the calm before the storm.
Unbeknownst to him, events soon take a sinister turn one morning as Klara, confused from the lewd photos shown to her by her adolescent brother, showers Lucas with overt affections. Whilst Lucas’ subsequent rebuke is gentle and in keeping with his general character, Klara, hurt and momentarily spiteful nonetheless, calmly fabricates an accusation of indecent exposure which is as unfounded as it is shattering.
Here, the film reaches a point of no return, as there is no doubt of Lucas’ innocence (police records would later expose the vivid, and yet terribly flawed, imaginations of children). Vinterberg thereby skilfully navigates through the adult world of mass hysteria in the face of so heinous a claim, and the children’s world of emotional petulance; a lethal concoction which would culminate in a life irreparably destroyed.
The self-portrayed close-knit community, in their quest to exorcise evil against one of their own, is in fact plainly seen to be perpetrating a greater evil and a heist of the greatest order: the heist against the reputational integrity of an innocent man.
Mikkelsen is outstanding in his role and renders a haunting performance as the man in the eye of the storm. Aided by his natural looks (characterised by thin lips, furrowed brow and wide narrow eyes), his rendition of Lucas, the Child Abuser, is almost… effortless. So fitting is Mikkelsen in the portrayal of often marginalised and polarising figures (Le Chiffre in Casino Royale; Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal) that Lucas would stand no chance against the cherubic innocence of Klara.
However, there are several incongruities in the film which, upon the whole, renders it short of a perfect screening. Overall, it speaks volumes of the deep-seated prejudices of a community when one man can be subject to such utter physical, emotional and social ostracism, perpetuated further by the emphatic absence of any restitutive relief (even when the man has been cleared of all charges).
Not only was there a lack of public apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing, there was, in fact, not an apology of any kind of substance or persuasion at all. Theo’s realisation of the full extent of his daughter’s error and his visitation from his former best friend only provides cold comfort, at best. (Note that throughout the film, Lucas is subject to calculated, merciless battery at the hands of the very community of which he prided himself a member and his beloved pet Fanny ultimately also befalls a sorrowful fate). This continues to perturb me, even weeks after viewing.
Another item of apocryphal realism is the extent to which all members of the community are seen to be swept into a mass uprising, and the little that Lucas does to clear his own name (e.g. appointment of a lawyer; petition for an advocate group). Whilst his son delivers a compelling performance as his stalwart defender – even engaging in fisticuffs with a grown man twice his size – it remains dubious how so few of his inner circle (whom are seen to be frolicking and drinking with him at the start of the film) has questioned his guilt.
For all its incongruities, The Hunt is thoroughly riveting; with a storyline as incisive as the most poignant drama, whilst at the same time gripping as a fast-paced thriller. The final encounter between Lucas and Klara, especially, showcases the talent of Vinterberg in coagulating the intensity of a moment, when the air is thick with a wickedness that pervades nowhere in particular and everywhere at once.
What the film lacks in emotional closure – particularly the ending’s oblique overtones in which Lucas is again the Hunted – it makes up for (in ready abundance) in the stoical fortitude of its leading protagonist and the unwavering loyalty of his son. And that, more than suffices.