The Hunt: a film about a society in thrall to its children

Thomas Vinterberg's latest film is a commendably cool study of hysteria.

The Hunt (15)
dir: Thomas Vinterberg

Thomas Vinterberg’s first feature to be released internationally, Festen (1998), was also the first product of the mischievous “Dogme 95” manifesto. This vow of artistic chastity was cooked up by Vinterberg, Lars von Trier and other Danish film-makers who sought to strip cinema of such unconscionably decadent elements as artificial lighting, dubbed sound and tripods. “Dogme 95” may be dead but The Hunt brings Vinterberg back full circle to Festen, thematically if not stylistically. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camerawork, though handheld, is elegant, while the film is crisply beautiful, with blazing autumnal colours giving way in the second half to arctic hues. Even music is permitted: the film begins with a group of hunting buddies leaping into a lake to the sound of Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. Given what follows, “Bad Moon Rising” might have been a better choice.

Where Festen concerned a patriarch exposed as a child abuser, The Hunt is set in motion when the same accusation is levelled against an innocent kindergarten teacher. To British eyes generally unaccustomed to seeing male staff at nursery schools, there may already be something odd about Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) playfighting with toddlers on the scatter cushions. Cultural norms aside, though, he is a model of propriety, which is partly his undoing. Rejecting a gift and a kiss from one of his doting young wards, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), he provokes the child’s wrath. She makes a mumbled, fictitious complaint about him to the headteacher, who takes her at her word. Lucas is cast out and branded a monster, or, in current parlance, thoroughly McAlpined.

I worried at this point that the psychological implausibility of Klara’s behaviour would capsize the film. Even the coincidence of having been shown a pornographic image by her older brother doesn’t explain her calculated strike on Lucas. Young children can be spiteful, though rarely in the same ways as their elders. This poppet operates briefly on a sophisticated plane of vindictiveness worthy of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

Vinterberg’s depiction of the panic provoked by the scandal is robust enough to override this narrative bump. The Hunt is a commendably cool study of hysteria, with a taut performance by Mikkelsen that recalls Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man. It helps that the indictment of the small-town Danish community precedes Lucas’s woes. The children’s playful ritual of spying on him as he strolls to work, hiding in bushes to ambush him, foreshadows the attacks that will be carried out by their adult relatives. The film plants the suggestion that mob rule is latent in even the gentlest communities. It’s there in the playground. All it needs is a nudge.

The hunting party to which Lucas belongs provides the film with both a motif and a sense of circularity (his teenage son is waiting to be inducted into this masculine tradition). But the threat is not exclusively male: the whispering women who convene at the kindergarten are every bit as dangerous as the rifle-toting men. Regardless of gender, they all revere Klara’s word. When she tries to recant, they urge her to cling to her complaint: “It did happen,” her mother tells her. (Other lines include: “I believe in the children” and “My little girl doesn’t lie”.)

This is a film about a society in thrall to its children, a Midwich Cuckoos for the Savile era. As long as someone out there is demonised as a defiler of innocence, the attention is deflected from our own failings, minor or otherwise. Near the start of the film, Klara’s parents are arguing so furiously that Lucas has to step in and take her to school for them. Their neglect is a form of child abuse too. The suggestion of a larger crime against their daughter is for them as much smokescreen as nightmare.

Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas in "The Hunt".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear