Friday, February 28, 2014

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)

Continuing on a path begun with 1998's The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt tells the story of a man falsely accused of child sexual abuse who is ostracized by the small Danish town he lives in. If that previous feature centered on a harsh truth that everyone seemed unwilling to accept, here the situation is reversed, the plot revolving around a blatant falsehood that everyone for some reason is willing to swallow.

Played by sex-symbol Mads Mikkelsen, divorced nursery teacher Lucas is presented from the very first frames in a good light. He is a quiet, good-natured person, beloved by his pupils and with a strong sense of fellowship with his friends. At the beginning we see him jumping into a lake's freezing water to help a friend in trouble who got there on a bet. Malice and calculation seem to be totally absent in him, to the point that he lets himself get pushed around even in the dispute with his ex-wife over their teenage son's custody.

Lucas' placid, uneventful life goes berserk when little girl Klara, who is one of his pupils and also his best friend's daughter, gives an unsettling description of her teacher's erect penis while talking to Grete, the kindergarten's headmistress. It is made clear to us that Klara is just reworking in her mind some age-inappropriate pics she has watched on her brother's phone, and that her behavior is a kind of revenge towards Lucas for not having received the attention she desired from him. But the suggestible Grete gets a shock just as Klara did, and takes the girl's words literally in the firm belief that "children never lie".

Grete's hysterical reaction, along with a superficial, manipulative evaluation on the part of a child psychologist instantly stirs up the preemptive indignation of the children's families. From denouncing a single abuse to conjecturing multiple sexual assaults perpetrated in the school, it's a short step. The police is called, Lucas immediately loses his job, and the glimmer of hope of obtaining his son's custody soon vanishes. Friends and acquaintances alienate him quickly, his recently acquired girlfriend and his best friend being in unison with the crowd's opinion.

Vinterberg's main concern is to explore patiently but implacably how mass hysteria can spread when hideous suspicions arise over a member of a community, and how this is especially the case in a small-town context. In particular, the director devotes great care in dissecting the rituals that form part of the community's cultural background, and the choice of setting the story during Christmas time appears particularly fitting. Collective celebrations are seen as essential occasions for social fulfillment that can easily become the worst of nightmares when one is stigmatized as an outsider. Lucas, however, is perhaps less an outsider than a victim, since he does accept each one of his people's traditions, even the sinister ritual that makes age of consent coincide with a deer hunt - a custom that, as the film's title suggests, sort of parallels the "witch hunt" the protagonist is victim of.

The characters' personalities are outlined infallibly. Mikkelsen hits the right note in portraying Lucas' passivity towards injustices committed against him, a trait that makes of him a perfect scapegoat for the town's hypocrisy. The headmistress, a masterwork of character drawing, is terrifically played by a Susse Wold in a state of grace. Her easy-to-dismiss performance is key to the film's success, since Grete's character is responsible for lighting the touch paper of Lucas' persecution, therefore she cannot afford to fail the plausibility test. After immediately earning our repugnance for the close-mindedness with which she jumps to conclusions, we get a whole picture of her psychic fragility when she throws up on hearing an allusion to semen during the psychological session. A molestation is just something her mind cannot cope with: she desperately tries to handle the situation with her cold professionalism, yet running away is all she can do as Lucas confronts her.

Even if the story is disturbingly plausible, if the film has a weakness is that we never quite get to know clearly the townspeople's motivations for turning their back on Lucas so abruptly. Vinterberg's direction, in fact, in addition to telling the story almost always from Lucas' perspective, erases carefully all doubts about his innocence. His relationship with the nursery children is depicted as unambiguous in every respect (we even get a scene where he patiently cleans up a young boy who has used the toilet), while his affair with colleague Nadja is a further evidence of his "healthy" sexual habits. As a result, we end up taking the side of him not unlike in an ordinary innocent-man-falsely-accused plot, and labeling the citizens' reaction as motivated by mere obtuseness. The risk, of course, is to absolve us from acknowledging that uncritically absorbing taken-for-granted information is a common mistake we all fall into, a point that the movie clearly strives to make. I wonder if it would have been more effective to cast the shadow of a doubt on the lead's innocence.

Another complain I would make to the director is that all the female characters, one way or another, are portrayed in a negative light. From Klara's mother (who certainly is the most justifiable in her rage against Lucas) to the school's headmistress, from Lucas' girlfriend (whose turnaround is undoubtedly the less believable) to his uncooperative ex-wife, little Klara is perhaps the only exception (and indeed her innocent smile clashes sharply with the fatal events she has unwittingly unleashed). To this adds that the only people who keep staying on Lucas' side are male (his son and his godfather). I don't think it is an intentional choice, nonetheless in following the protagonist through his ordeal I somehow felt the absence of a reassuring female presence, if only to compensate this imbalance.

All said and done, The Hunt is a compelling achievement in terms of story and characters, and works perfectly both as social commentary and human drama. But for a movie dealing with such a burning topic like defamation, it's a missed opportunity. If only it had the audacity to implicate the viewer more.

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