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

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad