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The Hunt

Communal Values


The Hunt functions best as a parable wrapped inside a work of realism, and perhaps the film might consequently appear never more impressive than in the process of its viewing. This might seem absurdly provocative: shouldn’t a film inevitably be at its most engaging whilst we’re sitting in the audience and the film is up there on the screen?  But let us call to mind what Hitchcock calls the ice-box effect: “the people who get home after seeing a movie, go to the icebox, and take out the cold chicken. While they’re chewing on it, they discuss the picture. In the morning, the wife meets the neighbour next door. She says to her “how was the picture?” and the wife says, “it was all right but we discovered a number of flaws in it” (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb). Such a film is obviously never better than in the viewing, and becomes ever more diluted as its narrative logic is weak under scrutiny. Removed from the utilization of music, performance and camera positioning, the film doesn’t so much leave a bad taste in the mouth; more an insignificant place in one’s mind.

Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is not quite such a film, and it resides in the questionable plot logic compensated for by the elucidation of its theme. If a film with faulty plotting contains no thematic significance to compensate, then does it not lack the residual counterpoint that can redeem the film in our minds after the viewing experience? Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian is right to point out that it is “arguably a flaw in the film’s realism that Lucas [Mads Mikelson) does not engage a lawyer, and the procedural aspects are sketchily drawn”, but if one feels that the attention to legal procedure would have got in the way of thematic development, then we can forgive the film its flaws for the gains it makes in terms of its theme. One reason Vinterberg insists in interviews that the film makes clear the central character’s innocence, concerning the accusation of child abuse, was because he wanted to explore theme without easy gimmicks. When asked whether he thought of presenting the character more ambiguously, he says: “We had that in mind for a while, but found it bored us…I wanted to totally step into the life of this man, and remove any distance between the audience and him. So there was no chance of playing around with it.” (Sight and Sound, Dec. 2012) Equally, concentrating on the judicial procedure would have drawn the focus away from Mikelson’s innocent accused, and demanded we pay attention to why he is obviously innocent if he happens to be. Instead the film sums it up in a line or two: when one of his friends says to others that while the kids who claimed they have been abused by Lucas all talk of his basement, Lucas’s house doesn’t actually have one. The testimonies quickly collapse against the face of empirical evidence.

Of course there is always a possible problem concerning dramatic eschewal and thematic purpose. In Atonement, the film (like the book) elides a key court case where the central character gets locked up for a crime he clearly hasn’t committed, but the eschewal asks us to buy into a situation that if dramatized would look very implausible as a case against the central character might have been difficult to justify. By avoiding the court case altogether, director Joe Wright (as Ian McEwan did before him), doesn’t force the audience to find plausible the dramatically unlikely. They merely need to find it unlikely as plot logic left undramatised. Where the former would leave the viewer confronting the David Mamet dictum in On Directing Film that the audience will believing anything they haven’t been given reason to disbelief and feeling they ought to believe what is in front of their eyes, it is much easier if the plot logical failure is only on the back of their minds. The Hunt doesn’t seem to be a comparable example, however, since the implausible hasn’t been ‘invisibly dramatised’ (ie elided), but simply ignored: Lucas decides not to hire a lawyer. We might be a little bemused by Lucas’s passivity, but we have to credit this decision to the character rather than to the film. It might be dramatically and thematically convenient, but it is also through the character that this convenience is generated, not through dramatic sleight of hand.

Earlier we talked of the film being a parable wrapped in realism, and Vinterberg wants the specificity of the latter and the grandiosity of the former.  What would be examples of realism in the film? One might be the groceries he pays for after head-butting the bully in the supermarket: wouldn’t most films see this as an irrelevance after such a dramatic moment? Another might be the small detail of someone turning up for The Hunt at the end of the film and getting out of the car with her leg in plaster, with the film under no obligation to explain why. A third example could be the sex scene between Lucas and his nursery work colleague. They are all cinematic examples of what Roland Barthes in literary terms would call effet de reel – a reality effect generated by little details that are of no dramatic consequence. Where the scene like the one with young Klara telling the woman at the nursery that something happened with Lucas, and thus initiating the whole sex abuse scandal, and the one where Lucas’s son gets thrown out of Klara’s parents’ house, carry dramatic import, other moments have no more than realistic import. Equally it is dramatically necessary that Lucas’s house doesn’t have a basement, it isn’t of any dramatic importance what pictures he has up on the walls, or what furniture he has in the house.

However, before too swiftly moving on concerning this notion of the reality effect versus the dramatically important, we needn’t of course assume all images serve either dramatic progress or realist stasis. Numerous films create a dense mise-en-scene containing meaning that needn’t ever be dramatized in a strict sense. If a film shows a character opening his kitchen drawer and we see a particularly large and dangerous-looking knife we might wonder what dramatic function it is going to serve, but that doesn’t mean that if a character opens a fridge it will be irrelevant. The opened drawer showing us the knife might be dramatic, but the full fridge may be thematically purposeful. When Gilberto Perez comments on Michael Haneke’s Funny Games he notes the film “isn’t just a critique of screen violence and its audience but a disquieting picture of the violence fostered by insulating privilege. When the family first arrives at the house, and the gate mechanically closes behind them, Haneke holds the image for a long, ominous moment, conveying a sense that the gate designed to protect them is actually a trap. They’re on their own, too fenced in to get help…” (The London Review of Books) Here Perez notes how the dramatic and the thematic come together as one. The gate isn’t just a reality effect, but it isn’t quite a moment of dramatic foreshadowing either. The knife would be a categorically prefigured moment, while the woman’s leg in plaster would be no more than an effect of the real.

However, numerous images fall somewhere in between, with the filmmaker hinting at their importance but not signalling their dramatic significance. Indeed, we might wonder whether many a great film manages to create images that often function between the pertinent and the irrelevant, as if at any moment the latter can take on the purpose of the former. When Vinterberg and Lars von Trier created Dogme, maybe one reason why they included as a rule that “the film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons etc, must not occur)” was so this space between the significant and the irrelevant could be explored. It is as though the generic work creates too obvious a contrast between the significant and the irrelevant, though with the latter functioning not on the basis of an effect of the real as we have couched it, but closer to a backdrop to the fore-grounded action. Many a generic film might not require realism in the notion of a believable environment, but they do wish for a plausible one. This is the mise-en scene variation of the Mamet comment: the viewer will believe in a mise-en-scene they haven’t been given reason to disbelief. Hence many production designers have to do little more than create the plausible, not quite the realistic: the space that would make us muse over how a character exists in a particular space. When director Paul Thomas Anderson talking of The Master praised one of Hollywood’s most respected designers, Jack Fisk, he did so commenting on how much more Fisk added to production design than most. “Anybody can go shop for furniture, and look at enough colour photographs of the period that – with a good team around you – you can get the right wallpaper. But Jack always finds one thing that nobody else considers. I remember in There Will be Blood he built a ladder down into the silver mine that Daniel had to climb down into at the beginning of the movie. I finally saw, after editing the film for a year, that Jack had so carefully dug out alternating grooves on the ladder up – in other words this is where my foot goes, this is where my hand goes, and it wears differently on the way up and the way down.”  (Sight and Sound, Dec. 2012) This is an example of a believable rather than merely plausible mise-en-scene, with the details easily missed even by the film’s director. Yet it is the type of detail that would tell us a lot about the determination of the film’s central character: the drive he possesses to find oil as he wears grooves into the ladder doing so.

Yet just because such details are not easily noticed consciously, they are perhaps acknowledged sub-consciously, and there seems enough attention to detail in The Hunt for us to feel them working on us thematically. Vinterberg doesn’t choose a bigoted environment in which to show bigotry at work, but the very opposite: an apparently liberal, affluent community that assumes a warmth and friendliness which appears never before to have been tested. When Lucas is accused of sexually abusing Klara, the problem isn’t that the community closes ranks against one of their own; it is that everyone functions off assumption rather than fact, and for many it seems that the assumption allows them to turn Lucas into a scapegoat with too little evidence for its justification. When Klara’s father Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) says if he finds that Lucas has abused his daughter he will kill him, we might be horrified at the extremity of the statement, but at least in this instance it contains within it the possibility that Lucas might be innocent. The supermarket manager who asks Lucas’s son to leave and the butcher who beats Lucas up are part of the instant doxa: the immediate acceptance that Lucas has committed a crime and they’re entitled to take their anger out on him. But we might wonder if there are also people who are interested less in the innocence or the guilt, than the opportunity to punish. The problem for the angrily righteous is that if they forego punishment until the person is shown to be guilty, there is always the risk that the person will be found innocent. If one’s feelings demand righteous anger, then better to express that righteousness as quickly as possible, not because the person may turn out to be guilty, but that the person may not be culpable. Their desire to beat someone will be untenable if the man has committed no crime, but is self-righteously acceptable if he may have.

How does this fit in with the notion of believable mise-en-scene, however? A useful point of comparison might be Straw Dogs – a film a few critics have name-checked in their reviews. In Sam Peckinpah’s film, a mild-mannered mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) from the States moves to a small village in Cornwall with his English spouse, and the locals make his life so miserable that he finds he has to take a gun to them when they try and break into his home. Peckinpah’s point is the reverse of Vinterberg’s. Peckinpah searches out the problem of masculinity, with Hoffman the brain who has to accept that in certain situations aggression is also needed. The village is presented right from the start as a primitive, competitive environment, with Hoffman made to look small for all the big thinking his intellect allows. Vinterberg also indicates the importance of male camaraderie and competitiveness: whether it is through jumping into a cold lake, getting hopelessly drunk, or out hunting. But where Peckinpah sets up the binary system of bullying locals intimidating the mild-mannered newcomer, as he wants to find, as he does in most of his characters, a masculine core, Vinterberg is more intrigued by superficial feeling rather than core feeling. He wants to explore what happens when casual belief becomes accepted, when Chinese whispers, whether spread by adults (who pass on news of Lucas’s guilt), or the children (where an increasing number claim they’ve been abused by Lucas), create their own momentum. It isn’t about one man finding the depths of his personality, but about a community being swayed by hardly thought-through feelings of indignation. There may be the scene in the supermarket where Lucas brutally head-butts the butcher who’s been pushing him about, but Vinterberg has talked of his wariness of such a moment – troubled by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to Lucas fighting back. Where Peckinpah would have been pleased one supposes by the audience finding the very reaction that his characters discovers in action, for Vinterberg making too much of this moment is to miss the point.

Like his dogme-co-signatory Lars von Trier’s Dogville, this is a film chiefly about the problem of scapegoating, and any revenge is troublingly explored rather than readily accepted. This isn’t to condemn the importance of Peckinpah as a filmmaker, nor even the exploration of his problematic,  just to say that Vinterberg’s is different. Vinterberg’s film is interested not in individuality but community, and wonders what allows an eco-system to deteriorate with such rapidity. If Vinterberg is determined to show a character to the audience that is innocent, isn’t this more or less the same character that the villagers see also? Don’t they notice that the scare takes place around the same time he starts seeing a co-worker (indicating an interest in conventional sexuality), don’t they know that there has been no question in the past over his behaviour, and that Klara seems more indignantly angry with Lucas than frightened of him? The community is fragile because it shows little interest in people and more interest in habit. As a consequence, perhaps, Vinterberg needs a believable more than merely plausible mise-en-scene. Peckinpah’s is a brilliant generic work drilling into the raw nerve of masculinity; Vinterberg’s is a work or relative verisimilitude determined to explore the problem of a liberal community that might not be anywhere near as liberal as it thinks.

However what do we mean by this notion of habit versus human interest? In the film’s early stages there are various moments that indicate the habits of the characters more than their personalities, whether it happens to be swimming in a cold lake or hunting for wild animals. Vinterberg wants to explore the habits that make up the community. But when an accusation of child abuse is levelled at Lucas, the habits can no longer define the community unless the figure of Lucas is banished from it. Rather than changing the behaviour, deepening and exploring the ties that bind, the locals instead take the path of least resistance habitually as they assume Lucas is guilty not because there is evidence that he happens to be, but that it means the community can continue functioning as if normal, since the abnormal is defined by the perceived aberrant behaviour of one of its members. The reason Vinterberg insists he wanted to establish Lucas’s innocence from the outset is that if he didn’t we would be following a false thematic instead of acknowledging the appropriate one. The false thematic would lie in one wondering what he might have done, and whether he is a character whom we can trust. Vinterberg doesn’t want this, because the problem doesn’t lie in our sceptical relationship with Lucas, but the community’s dismissive relationship with him. It isn’t Lucas that changes in front of our eyes, but everyone else as they quickly close ranks to allow the continuation of communal habit over the exploration of individual behaviour. When the teacher for example who first hears Klara’s testimony says children don’t lie, she offers it in the plural, so Lucas as an individual must be guilty, and thus allow the villagers a feeling of communal health by quickly eradicating the virus that could destroy it. There is the sense that by proposing Lucas isn’t guilty this would be much more dangerous to the group than proposing he might be, and this has less to do with the evidential than with the moral, with the idea that habitual moral well-being is more important than the vagaries of the truth. Even his lover, Klara (Alexandra Rapaport), at one moment has doubts about Lucas’s innocence as she asks him whether he did indeed abuse Klara after the latter comes to Lucas’s house and Nadja watches the exchange between the two of them. Lucas overreacts and throws Nadja out of the cottage, but she has also overreacted, and from Lucas’s point of view looks like she too is falling into the habitual, of protecting the communal over the individual.

Vinterberg seems, though, to be searching out the issue of fragility of community in the face of an epistemological problem amongst the villagers rather than a moral problem within it. Now of course if Lucas had committed the crime of abusing Klara and her classmates this would be a moral problem, but many a moral problem contains first of all an epistemological one. A court of law might eventually announce someone as innocent or guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, but in the interim the person is a little like Schrödinger’s cat: they are simultaneously innocent and guilty. It is all very well to say a person is innocent until proven guilty, but there is quite a difference between the innocence of the non-accused and the innocence of the accused. If the guilty represent a moral problem (as the law decides what sentence should be passed: whether community service, a short sentence, a long sentence, or most extremely the death penalty), and the innocent a non-issue, then the suspected represents an epistemological one.

The question Vinterberg’s film asks is how important the epistemological question is to the community; and this is why we proposed the film is a fable wrapped inside realism. Vinterberg creates a realistic enough world as the film feels Scandinavian in its interest in children, its comfortable lifestyle and its wintry pursuits, but contains this realistic milieu within a fable-like enquiry that wants to universalize the problem of community. If Vinterberg deliberately chose to make Lucas innocent, it is as though he also deliberately chose an innocuous rather than an a priori bigoted community to bring out the problem of the epistemological versus the ethical, the notion of truth against the notion of morality. If this becomes troublesome in a wealthy, liberal Scandinavian small town, where isn’t it likely to be a problem?  The realism here serves the fable as The Hunt wonders why searching out the truth is so much more demanding than assuming moral certitude. When Lucas gets bailed on the basis of having no basement, it is the lawyer (a friend’s father rather than someone Lucas hires) who notices the contradictions, and Lucas is released from prison. But one might wonder why others didn’t notice such contradictions, or were they too concerned with moral assertiveness over truth-seeking? When after hearing he’s been suspended, Lucas sees the teacher to whom Klara confessed and tries to speak to her, she insists he keeps his distance and leaves the school immediately. She looks like she has washed her epistemological hands of the situation and allows her stance to harden into moral disapproval. While initially when talking to Klara about Lucas’s actions she leaves room for an element of doubt, by this stage the moral imposes itself on the search for truth and Lucas is very much guilty until proven innocent. While the law might insist that a man is innocent until proven guilty, that is one thing in a court of law; quite another in a community which needs to hold itself together by given principles, and where those principles are morally aggrandizing rather than truth-seekingly compassionate.

From this point of view, Theo proves interesting. While his wife automatically assumes her daughter is telling the truth and thus Lucas must be a paedophile, the husband tries to find a place between assuming his daughter would not lie, and that his closest friend cannot possibly have abused her. When he slams Lucas up against a wall saying if the accusations are true he will kill him, it is the response of an anguished man unsure whether he has a child abuser in his midst or his best friend innocently accused. It is a desperate response to an unspeakable evil or an appalling false accusation. He feels the need like almost everybody else in the community for certitude, but he also accepts that he cannot quite have it in good faith. A doubt lingers, a doubt that late in the film Lucas insists Theo confront. As Lucas staggers into the church at Christmas time, he forces Theo to look into his eyes and wonders if his friend can really believe these eyes are guilty. Though one might be tempted to wonder whether in his wracked expression there might be something that Theo’s character has to hide, we ought to assume that since Vinterberg wanted to make sure the audience saw Lucas as innocent, he also didn’t want to propose anybody else might have abused Klara either. However, when Vinterberg says he wanted to be very careful with how Lucas was presented, with no suggestive camera angles, we might think of a scene quite late in the film where the father goes into Klara’s bedroom and the angles are looming and ominous, and perhaps viewers insistent on reading the film on a narrative level, might also wonder at the end of the film whether the person who looks like they’re trying to kill him would be none other than Theo.

Such an approach to the film however would be both thematically reductive (too easily reducing the film to narrative speculation) and dubiously premised: hasn’t the film made clear no act of abuse has taken place? It seems much more fruitful to see the presentation of Theo as no more than an issue of verisimilitude (the lighting from the hall silhouetting a man approaching his daughter in the darkness of her room) and the ending indicative of residual moralising as murderous righteousness. Of course we have no idea who’s behind the gun going off here, on the closing hunt, but just as there are occasionally those who assume that a person is innocent until found guilty and thus shows in their behaviour and demeanour a humanity that indicates a care for both the facts and the individual; at the other extreme there will be the odd person who cannot tolerate an innocence that has been proven, since they accepted a guilt that had not been: a guilt that nevertheless allowed their own position to seem firm.

Vinterberg’s ending isn’t narratively mysterious, especially – it isn’t there to force upon us the question of who might be firing the gun – but instead thematically ironic. The normal moral position it seems is the one that most in the community take, and they would not at all seem abnormal in their response, no matter if we might wish to question the values of such a community, a community that is itself so normalized that we may call into question the values of community, of the group versus the individual. As Robert Pippin explores the evolution of society in the Western genre, he notes: “The doomed fate of both the Indians and the heroic cowboys is often treated mythically as the doomed fate of these very traits and virtues in the modern world, a world now complex enough to require a level of cooperation, compromise, prudence, and repression that is inimical to such states of the soul.” (Hollywood Westerns and American Myth). But the ironic sting in Vinterberg’s tale here is that the exceptional can exist beyond the community’s demands, can exist sociopathically out of a residual righteousness, just as the exception within the possibility of the person’s guilt can exist out of a fundamental need for truth.

It is perhaps this very ending that gives the film its final gravity as it assumes it is not merely about the innocent forgiving the accusers their rush to judgement, but that the virus of righteous accusation cannot any longer be contained by judicial notions of innocence or guilt. Near the end of the film we jump forward a year to this final hunt and see that Lucas is now incorporated into the community again as the townsfolk meet at someone’s country estate, and we may wonder how Lucas will interact with the very people who rejected him a year earlier. He is back with Nadja, and at one moment shows wary affection to Klara, but it is likely that the audience’s thoughts will be with Lucas’s decency in accepting as friends again many of the people who set out to destroy him. But the irony here is that while we might be wondering about Lucas’s entitlement to a bit of righteous anger of his own, we are unlikely to see coming the residual righteousness of someone in the community who feels that Lucas is somehow a danger to the village.

Initially we talked of course about Hitchcock’s notion of the ice-box effect, and also wondered whether Vinterberg’s film was better in the viewing experience than in one’s residual response. It is maybe the film’s very ending that allows for the opposite of the ice-box effect, taking into account that Hitchcock’s remark concerns the flaws in the plot, while Vinterberg’s ending appears to search out the full complexity of his theme. If Vinterberg has been wary of those responding too strongly to the scene where Lucas head-butts the butcher, then it might not only be due to a pacifist streak in a filmmaker determined to escape from the aggression of mainstream cinema that sees such sequences as usefully manipulative, but also because he could see that the enthusiasm with which an audience responds to such a moment might endanger the elaboration of his thematic. By showing the individual strongly reacting to the community, The Hunt might have indicated the answer resides in personal assertiveness, when Vinterberg’s film is, finally, nothing if not the exploration of  a problem at the heart of general notions of social cohabitation. If the ice-box effect as Hitchcock couches it indicates poor narrative logic, is there not a thematic version of the ice-box effect based on poor thematic exploration? How often has one come out of a film entertained, and a couple of days later realized that there was nothing left to remember? It isn’t the flaws that are the problem, but the too easy solutions that leave no problem left to dwell upon. Frequently a film will offer a scene like the one between Lucas and the butcher as narrative and thematic resolution, as the climactic moment where the town bullies get taken on and taken out, and sometimes in good, earlier films too – like Shane and High Noon.

But modern narrative cannot too easily resolve such problems without seeming facile, and though Vinterberg includes such a scene, he doesn’t allow it to pass for a conclusion. He places the scene two thirds of the way through the film, and concludes instead on a moment closer to the seventies American cinema (that of course Straw Dogs came out of) than classic Hollywood: closer to the paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View and The French Connection; and to The Deer Hunter, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Godfather. These are films that end on a note of paranoiac frustration, defeat or sinister or troubling conformity. The Hunt is a film that earns its comparisons with such works, because it knows that its exploration of theme is more important than its resolution of plot. If Hitchcock talks of films that fail even on the plot logical level, then The Hunt finally succeeds by insisting than any plot resolution is secondary to the continuation of thematic exploration beyond the contours of the film. The Hunt asks some useful and fundamental questions about what community happens to be, and would make a fine double-bill with any number of films exploring problems of social cohabitation: not only Vinterberg’s Festen, of course, nor even von Trier’s Dogville, nor even the seventies works name-checked, but also films where narrative conformity was still possible: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Red River and Stagecoach.


©Tony McKibbin