Film review – The Hunt (2012)

1 May 2013
The Hunt: Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen)

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen)

‘What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves?’ pleads Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert at the climax of Fritz Lang’s seminal masterpiece M (1931). As a serial killer who has been preying on children, Beckert is the reprehensible villain of the film until Lang deftly challenges audience sympathies when Beckert is set upon by an enraged mob and subjected to a mock trial. Pleading for his life, Beckert challenges the morality of the crowd who see fit to judge and condemn him, rather than allowing the police to do their job. A terrifying film about a child murderer ends with a savage condemnation of a society that lowers itself to Beckert’s level by taking the law into its own hands. Over eight decades later, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt explores similar terrain except with the crucial difference that the protagonist, a primary school teacher named Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been accused of sexually abusing a young girl, is innocent.

Vinterberg’s 1998 film Festen (aka The Celebration) was about a man who interrupts his father’s 60th birthday party with the news that his father used to rape him and his twin sister when they were children. Festen was the first and best of the films in the Dogme 95 movement, which Vinterberg co-founded, and its stripped back ‘pure’ filmmaking techniques facilitated a complex and even darkly humorous exploration of the ruptures that occur when a trusted and respected member of the community is accused of a crime most people cannot bear thinking about. The Hunt is a far more refined film in terms of its visual aesthetics, but Vinterberg’s social critique remains unflinching. Instead of depicting the mob mentality of Festen where the accusations of abuse resulted in disbelief and hostility towards the accuser, in The Hunt the accused is hounded and not believed by the mob.

A narrative about a man falsely accused of child sexual abuse could have all too easily pandered to the paranoia and rhetoric of hysterical men’s rights groups that regard challenges to disproportionate male privilege as male persecution. Fortunately Vinterberg ensures The Hunt remains a progressive film by avoiding characterisations and plot developments that could be interpreted as anything other than a critique of mob behaviour. This is not a film where women are the enemy and men are the victims. Lucas is a single father, but his unseen ex-wife is portrayed as reasonable and wanting the best for their son; both Lucas and the film are respectful toward her. Both men and women are portrayed as rushing too easily into forming a negative opinion against Lucas, and both male and female characters are guilty of asking Lucas’s alleged victim leading questions designed to confirm their suspicions rather than arrive at the truth.

If there is any gender critique in The Hunt it is directed toward Lucas’s male friends who move from being drinking and hunting buddies to violent aggressors. While the film’s title clearly suggests the witch-hunt against Lucas, it also captures the values of the small town the film is set in, where becoming a man is defined by being old enough to get a hunting license and be entrusted with a gun. It is a masculine and predatory environment, and the ease with which the men of the town assume the worst in Lucas suggests a dark recognition of the potential for themselves to inflict horrific crimes against the innocent. The violence against Lucas is arguably a symbolic act to rid the community of its potential for evil, even though Lucas is not the problem.

Most significantly, The Hunt is not an attack on the legal system that deals with child abuse investigations. The theme of the police and courts failing the innocent and protecting the guilty is a popular one in mainstream cinema based on prevalent myths of judicial leniency. While the legal proceedings into Lucas’s accusations are never shown on screen and only talked about, The Hunt very calmly suggests that the system does work. The threat to Lucas is not a Kafkaesque nightmare of legal dead-ends, but the self-appointed accusers from the community. Like the mob in M acting without the authority of the law, the townspeople in The Hunt are the true threat to social order and stability.

The Hunt is a confronting and fascinating work of cinema. The decline in civility towards Lucas is chillingly plausible, revealing the uncomfortable truth that fears about child abuse are so pronounced that it is all too easy to condemn somebody before all the facts are in. Emotions easily cloud rational judgement and while it seems straightforward as an audience member to disapprove of Lucas’s former friends and colleagues, it is difficult to guess how we may behave in a similar situation when faced with such heightened emotions. Vinterberg has created a disturbing mirror to look into, revealing the collective fears and prejudices of a community that only required the suspicion of a crime for it to take a step closer to savagery.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – In a Better World (2010)

24 March 2011
In a Better World: Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Marianne (Trine Dyrholm)

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Marianne (Trine Dyrholm)

The original Danish title for the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards is Hævnen. Translating into English directly as ‘vengeance’, or ‘the revenge’, this title reveals the film’s concern with issues of violence and how we respond to acts of intimidation both in everyday life and under extraordinary circumstances. Director Susanne Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen have collaborated before, including the 2004 film Brødre, which was remade reasonably well in America as Brothers in 2009. Like Bier and Jensen’s previous films, In a Better World tackles weighty and serious issues through a compelling dramatic narrative so that the film lingers in the mind long after it has finished.

There are several intertwining stories throughout In a Better World that feature the characters having to confront aggressive individuals who cannot be reasoned with. There is 12-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard) who is bullied at school and both shocked and thrilled by how troubled newcomer Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) responds. Elias’s father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) gets into a threatening situation where he presents for the boys a brave and convincing case for not resorting to violence in the face of adversity. However, the opening of the film featuring Anton working as an aid doctor in a Sudanese refugee camp signposts the horrors that he will later have to confront, where his admirable ethics will be pushed to the absolute limit.

In a Better World: Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen)

Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen)

In a Better World does take an effectively argued non-violence stance and yet it acknowledges how difficult such a position is in extreme situations. The film explores the nature of learned behaviour and how easily violence can escalate, especially when self-justified. It also examines the nature of bullying, how the urge to pick on others manifests in adults and the horrific extent of that urge. The contrasts between the various situations and characters throughout the film compel the audience to question if there are people who are ever truly beyond redemption. There is nothing simple or easy about the moral conundrums raised in this film, which is ultimately about how we can never truly quantify the full impact of an act of violence.

The skill in which the filmmakers focus on the drama to engage the audience is what makes In a Better World such an impressive film. The characters are flawed and likeable making the way they approach both the small and large ethical dilemmas completely convincing.  This is not a didactic film but a very tightly constructed human drama that shows no hesitancy in exploring difficult, complex and important themes. Rewardingly it does conclude with a hopeful, albeit tentative, vote of confidence in the next generation’s ability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Antichrist (2009)

8 December 2009

She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe)

The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) is a true cinematic experimentalist and agent provocateur with Antichirst being the most comprehensive encapsulation of all his ideas and stylistic approaches to date. Antichrist opens with a stunning black-and-white, slow motion prologue where the film’s leads, known simply as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), make love in the shower while their unattended child crawls out of his crib, climbs out an open window and falls to his death. Antichrist then unfolds over four chapters where He and She travel to an isolated forest cabin named Eden in order to reconcile their loss. She is consumed with grief, guilt, anxiety and self-loathing, using sex as a masochistic distraction from her pain. He is a therapist so takes it upon himself to heal her by making her confront the source of her deepest fear – the Eden cabin they have gone to where she had previously worked on a thesis about misogynist murder.

Von Trier uses a mixture of visual approaches in Antichrist to maximum effect. To portray the destructive dynamic between He and She von Trier utilises a very raw, handheld-camera filming style. To capture many of the hypnotic outdoor scenes, often filled with images of death in the natural world, von Trier radically uses sound, cinematography and editing to create some of the most beautiful yet nightmarish imagery ever created on screen. The eerie beauty of such scenes contrasts dramatically to the extremely violent brutality that occurs later in the film and very few people will be able to sit through key moments in Antichrist without physically recoiling in horror and disbelief at what they’ve just witnessed.

Von Trier has explored misogyny before and, similarly to David Lynch, he has been accused of being a misogynist as a result. While Antichrist does not contain any single fixed meaning as such, it does depict the misogyny of men who cast women as victims so that they can wield power as authoritative experts. Furthermore, it depicts female self-hatred, which is arguably the most destructive form of misogyny. The self-disgust that She develops towards her own sexuality is represented in Antichrist through its imagery of the natural world as Hell. Functioning as the inverse of the Biblical creation story, Antichrist is the most unique and divisive ‘horror’ film you are ever likely to see.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 343, 2009

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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DVD review – Babette’s Feast (1987), Region 4, Shock

25 May 2009
Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran)

Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran)

In 1987 the art-house hit that one absolutely had see was the Academy Award winning Danish film Babette’s Feast, with its thematic blend of spirituality and food. Babette’s Feast begins with a long prologue establishing the pious lives of a pair of sisters living in a remote village on the Danish coast in the 19th century. About a third of the way into the film Babette shows up requesting refuge from the violence in Paris. The whole film is really just a build up to the amazing French meal Babette eventually prepares for the sisters and what is left of the village’s small congregation. As Babette’s extraordinary meal begins the congregation nervously start eating, worried that the sensory pleasures of the food will distract them from their religious duties.

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