Saturday, March 22, 2014

161. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish film “Jagten” (The Hunt) (2012): The hunted is always the loser

Denmark has two interesting filmmakers alive and actively making films: Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. They co-founded the Dogme 95 movement in film-making. This movement vowed to give importance to story, acting and theme and give least importance to special effects and technology. By and large, both gentlemen have tried their best to keep to that manifesto for a decade, while some of their works, especially those of von Trier in the recent past (such as Europa and Melancholia ), have relied heavily on technology. Vinterberg’s The Hunt made nearly two decades after founding the Dogme 95 movement, is an example of film-making that attempts to persevere with the original intent of Dogme 95, namely, relying considerably on story, acting and theme.

Lucas (Mikkelson): "More sinn'd against than sinning"

The story: What is the story of The Hunt? To very naive viewers of the film, it would be pedophilia. Yes, the film is indeed about a male kindergarten teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelson) accused of inappropriate behavior with one his favorite female students.  Vinterberg’s movie goes beyond the alleged crime and really addresses an issue that over-arches the obvious. That question is: Will the average person who knows Lucas but hates persons who are sexual perverts, especially those who harm innocent children, be considered honorable by us (the viewers) in making knee-jerk judgments and like the characters in the Danish town depicted in the film, brand a good friend to be evil when there is insufficient legal proof of guilt. Vinterberg’s film goes further by asking the viewer that if a person is indeed convinced about a point of view aided by hysteria whipped up by tabloid journalism, how many of us are prepared to change our views even when all evidence reverses our initial opinion? Would or can our initial distrust ever be fully obliterated with time and by cold reason?

Vinterberg and his co-scriptwriter Tobias Lindholm have raised yet another issue to the viewer: can children be truly innocent as most of us assume them to be. And finally, Vinterberg and his co-scriptwriter present the modern male, stripped of the usual stereo-typed bravura masculinity, the gentle male who can be happy doing a traditional woman’s job of being a kindergarten teacher but yet not to be mistaken for a wimp as he is (as the filmmakers tell the viewers early in the film) also the first among his machismo male friends to jump into an icy pond to save a drowning friend. Vinterberg’s The Hunt is thus a thought-provoking movie with a powerful story that saves the real wallop for the epilogue.

The strength of the story would have been considerable for this critic had he not seen a black-and-white British film directed by Peter Glenville called Term of Trial (1962). That film had Lord Laurence Olivier playing a British schoolteacher who refused to participate in the World War and is thus frowned upon by society even though he is good at his work and is happily married to his attractive but difficult-to-please wife (played by Simone Signoret). Like Lucas in The Hunt, undone by unfounded accusations of inappropriate behavior by his female 5-year-old kindergarten student, in Term of Trial a precocious 16 year old female student (played by Sarah Miles)  accuses the British school teacher (played by Olivier) of rape when he had actually honorably declined her sexual offers. In both cases, the films study the mentality of society that has formed an opinion with their own prejudiced reasoning.  The British teacher must have done it, the public surmises, because he refused to enlist in the war and is therefore guilty even before the court pronounces him to be either guilty or innocent. Similarly, the Danish teacher in The Hunt, is likely to be guilty in the eyes of the majority in the Danish town because Lucas’ wife has left him, because Lucas has such a low self esteem that he opts to teach kindergarten children and because Lucas hugs his child accuser in public out of genuine appreciation of Klara's love for his dog. In both films, the separate female under-aged students are believed to have been wronged even though there is no proof such events occurred. In both films, the female students had a crush (of differing natures, because of their ages) on their respective well-meaning honorable teachers.

In The Hunt, the scriptwriters Vinterberg and Lindholm provide sufficient psychological reasons for the child having to make the statement she makes (her heart-shaped gift made by her being rebuffed by her teacher Lucas and the fleeting indecent images she glimpses on her brother’s smart phone). But a protective modern society believes a child cannot lie, when in reality a child can build imaginary and vivid stories that have no truth.

Vinterberg raises a pertinent question about society, which includes church-going Christians celebrating Christmas who have closed minds when it comes to prejudices that extend to refusing to sell groceries to a man who has not yet legally been proven guilty of the offence. Vinterberg is not very different from von Trier. who had raised similar comments of church-going Christians who are easily prejudiced often for frivolous reasons, in his film Breaking the Waves.

Vinterberg’s and Lindholm’s co-written script is impeccable. The society goes beyond those of the elders in The Hunt. The script has a lovely line ”It is always assumed that the children tell the truth.” The script proves that even children, like the adults in the film, believe in what others say. Klara’s schoolmates pick up imaginary details from her story about Lucas and spread lies that we, the viewers, are told are figments of a fertile imagination. The “hunted” cannot escape.

The acting: Director Vinterberg’s next biggest achievement is the lead performance he elicited from Mads Mikkelson playing the role of Lucas, which was credible and low key, with spurts of violent behavior. It was a performance that richly deserved the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012.

Klara (Anna Wedderkopp) -- an amazing performance from a child actor

While Mikkelson’s performance forms the bulwark of The Hunt, Vinterberg gets an equally stunning performance from the 5-year-old Klara, played by Annika Wedderkopp. Klara’s role is no easy one—she convincingly plays a kid with an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with a fear of stepping on cracks on the road or lines marked for pedestrians without holding on to someone’s hand. Vinterberg’s handling of Annika is as remarkable as Oliver Reed’s direction of the Oscar nominated performance of the 16 year old Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger in Oliver!

Lucas (Mikkelson) confronts his friend Theo (Bo Larsen)
during Christmas service in the church

Then there is Vinterberg’s regular thespian Thomas Bo Larsen playing Klara’s father Theo who has never let Vinterberg down in each of his performances for the director.

The theme: Though Vinterberg does bring in the sequence of hunting wild animals in the film, the real thematic metaphor of the hunt is of the Danish kindergarten teacher being targeted by the townsfolk after a child’s statement, part innocent, part willful. Where Vinterberg and Lindholm succeed is inferring that in any hunt, the hunter is always the winner and the hunted the loser. (The final sequence of The Hunt is comparable to the powerful final sequence of Term of Trial, cinematographically and metaphorically, where in both films the tragic honorable teachers even when they clear their name lose out to forces in society.) 

The hunter or the hunted?

What is remarkable is how Vinterberg and Lindholm were able to state this cinematic “killing of the hunted” in The Hunt even when Lucas, the hunted individual, had forgiven his tormentors without any trace of remorse like a true Christian after being poorly treated by his own buddies—one of whom he had saved from drowning instinctively while others looked on in relative comfort. The theme of the hunt is used to probe into the moral fabric of the Danish society which asserts its strong Protestant Christian values—a common thread for both Vinterberg and von Trier.

The Hunt is indeed a remarkable film of 2013 with a superb performance and a thought–provoking script that questions the viewer’s stand on reason and reasonable doubt.

P.S. The Hunt is on the author’s list of his top 10 films of 2013 though the film was originally released in 2012 and won three Cannes awards in 2012. It was nominated unsuccessfully for the best foreign film Oscar in 2013, losing eventually to the The Great Beauty.