Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Hunt (Jagten, Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)


Don't stand so close to me

Wasn't a big fan of Thomas Vinterberg's breakout feature The Celebration (Festen, 1998), often considered the first film produced under the Dogme 95 guidelines. Thought the film--about a dinner party thrown by an obscenely rich family that goes on for far too long and leads to embarrassing revelations involving rape and incest--a darkly funny setup that degenerates into a grotesque cartoon (which pretty much sums up the modus operandi of most Doggie-style filmmakers). Vinterberg wants to say profound things about the corrupting influence of family and other social institutions but instead ends up with an incomprehensible, unbelievable comedy sketch, before which he seems to have pulled down his zipper and urinated.

No such problems with the first half of Vinterberg's latest, The Hunt (Jagten, 2012--a 2014 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, not that that's of any particular importance to me, personally) where he sketches a modest little Danish village, and for protagonist the modest Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen). Lucas' life is far from perfect--he's divorced, his wife has custody of his child, he's a teacher forced to work in a kindergarten because his school closed; that said, the children love him and he in turn seems to genuinely care for them, can effortlessly talk to them at their level.

Then one of the children named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) mentions seeing Lucas' 'private parts,' and he finds himself suspended from his duties.

Vinterberg works out in thorough detail the procedure by which the whole community comes to respond to Klara's story, and to Lucas' perceived crime. You can't help but believe in the impassive solidity of the wall former friends and neighbors throw up around him; you can't help but believe the desperation with which he tries to reach out, and is repeatedly rebuffed. You even understand the motivations driving both sides: the townsfolk want to safeguard their own--are all the more fierce because they feel they have somehow failed in this regard--yet Lucas has a house here, somehow has to live here. Protect the children--it's an imperative a parent doesn't even have to think about following; on the other hand, I've talked to and dealt with sex offenders and for all their problems and all the horrifying things they have done, can't help but feel they deserve some measure of respect, of dignity, of justice. This may be Denmark and you may be reading their dialogue in English subtitles, but the whole situation and its harrowing downward spiral could be happening here, now--anywhere you have children, and around your children, predators. 

Most interesting decision on Vinterberg's part is to make Lucas clearly innocent. This isn't some exploration about the impossibility of objective truth a la John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, or the Kurosawa classic Rashomon; the director means to capture onscreen the way a community can band together and decide to consistently, comprehensively do the wrong thing. As for Klara, she isn't exactly lying--for some reason she has conflated her crush on him with the nude picture of a man her elder brother showed her as a prank--but there is no malice in her, no malevolence, and hence no doubt in everyone's mind that she's telling the truth; when she recants her story ("I've done something stupid," she admits) the adults don't even blink--they're sure she's just blanking out the episode, it's so traumatic. 

Can't emphasize enough how crucial Mikkelsen's performance is to this film. He has to convince us of the kind nature of the man in his brief opening scenes at the kindergarten. He has to undergo the various emotional phases of the wronged victim--from incredulity to outrage to betrayed hurt to sullen ingrown suffering. He has to retain one's sympathies even as he shoves his girlfriend Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), one of the few adults left who believe him, out the door. And he has to do all this with his face gradually freezing into a mask, as he realizes just how isolated he is.

The film starts to derail about the time (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the picture) the case against Lucas derails; up to this point the story has been all too hideously real, the characters apparently driven by life itself. When Lucas starts venturing out again and insisting on his right to resume his position as a member of the community, I begin to see Vinterberg's hand forcing the situation. If I like Lucas were accused of child molestation I wouldn't even try rejoining them, I'd simply get the hell out, and consider myself lucky to have escaped. I know what'll happen if I try otherwise--just had a taste of it firsthand, earlier in the picture; anything else seems more like plot contrivance than inevitable psychology. 

Which is a pity. The style Vinterberg debuted so famously in Festen--the handheld camera, the washed-out color palette, the low-level lighting and total lack of ambient soundtrack beyond whatever happens to be playing onscreen--seemed so mannered in that earlier work, a talented novice's attempt at neorealism. Here the same style seems effortless, earned; it emphasizes without any undue fuss that this is what life looks like, this is how life is. When the film starts straying from realism into Christlike suffering and redemption, said style seems to mock the solemnity of the proceedings. It's as if Vinterberg's eye were chiding his brain: "We know how things truly are, no matter what silly scenarios you might think up; without lifting a finger or batting a lash we'll undermine your argument, show it for the hollow construct it really is."

First published in Businessworld, 2.13.14

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