Lies Damn Lies: The Fear Inside Us

in 25th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by György Kárpáti

Sometimes, the simple act of watching a film can be painful, disturbing. Even if all the elements fall beautifully into place, in the end it’s difficult to say, “Wow, that was a great experience!” Such is the case with Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Jagten), a film about a man in a small community falsely accused of molesting a child — a story that Vinterberg took from real-life circumstances.

In an interview two years ago during the European Film Awards weekend, Vinterberg explained that he had been told, by a psychologist, about several cases involving pedophilia, or charges of same. The director indicated that the details of some of the cases were so extreme that he didn’t feel he could bring them to the screen — no one would believe the stories, even if they had occurred, and they had.

So, in The Hunt, we have a kindergarten teacher who loves children, but one day, a 4-year-old girl tries to kiss him in his mouth. Hurt by his (understandable) rejection, the girl fabricates a story, claiming the teacher has abused her. Soon, the whole town — parents, friends, coworkers — are aware of the charges, not sure what to believe but ready to believe the worst, threatening to destroy a man’s life. In Denmark — and perhaps other parts of the world as well — adults believe the words of a small child without hesitation. The notion that small children don’t, or can’t lie, is axiomatic. The cruel absurdity of such a belief manifests itself in Vinterberg’s drama, which has been shot in the Danish filmmaker’s unflinching Dogma style. It’s a style Vinterberg first explored in The Celebration (Festen), but it has evolved, matured, and the director clearly thinks differently now — finding a way to develop his storytelling, and characters, and adapt the real life story, and making it all feel organic.

The Hunt finally establishes Vinterberg as an undisputed champion, one of the most influential directors of his era. This masterpiece tells everything about auteur style, about how to use the motion picture as a form of art, telling a simple story with simple tool, revealing all the complexities beneath the surface. In recognition of his achievement, Vinterberg and his film have been recipients of 18 prizes, to date, and was also just awarded seven prizes by the Danish Film Academy (including best picture, director, screenplay and actor). The reviews generally mention that the success of the film, and filmmaker, is intertwined with the achievements of Mads Mikkelsen, in the principal role. Mikkelsen is the essence of The Hunt and we can say that the movie actually is a one man show. There’s something natural and instinctive in this performance, especially when we compare it with the previous Mikkelsen roles. The FIPRESCI jury gave the Danish artist the best actor prize, considering “Mads Mikkelsen’s powerful yet minimalist performance in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, as a school teacher wrongly cast out by his community, brings exceptional depth and dimension to bear on an enigmatic figure. The actor finds the humanity, and the contradictions, in his character, bringing a sense of balance and honesty to a tale riddled with injustice and lies.”

Watch the small details, the nuance and subtlety in this performance: the glances stolen, the eyes brimming with incomprehensibility and disappointment. Too extreme? Not at all. Vinterberg told me that he especially loves the opening scene of The Hunt, where naked friends are just jumping into a lake. An open air scene with nudity is a celebration of innocence, of fun, of shedding inhibitions. But in a way, now, that seems like ancient times. Think of the title of the 1974 Fassbinder movie: Fear Eats the Soul. The world, sadly, has changed — a change that Vinterberg captures with haunting clarity. Mikkelsen’s character embodies that change — his hurt, his wariness, his anger and sadness. It hurts more than the story itself. The Hunt is unforgettable, a masterpiece, an instant classics. And a star is born. Well, Mikkelsen’s star has long been arcing, but it is brighter than ever now.

Edited by Steven Rea