A Random Lie? Reflections On The Hunt

Basia Lewandowksa Cummings ponders some of the issues raised by Thomas Vinterberg's false accusation drama, which is in UK cinemas now


These are the words that appear on top of the image of a young girl sitting with her back to the camera in the UK trailer (see below) for Thomas Vinterberg’s new feature, The Hunt, to titillate its prospective audiences as to the tension at the heart of the narrative. Unwittingly perhaps, this short caption perfectly frames the paradoxes in this sharp thriller about a Danish village’s response to accusations of child abuse, and of the moral confusion, group hysteria and viral suspicion that rips through the inhabitants of what seems to be an otherwise sleepy, close community.

The phrase ‘a random lie’ seems to be the accidental key to the film. These words, which fade onto screen in the trailer, are set against the image of the young protagonist Klara (played by Annika Wedderkopp) – the ‘innocent’ source of the random lie – a lonely girl, lacking in family intimacy and attention, who accuses Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) – her father’s best friend and also her kindergarten teacher – of sexual abuse. Her accusation is ambiguous and confused, and Vinterberg’s skill as a director of group drama comes into play so clearly in his orchestration of the suspicion and its poisonous and often violent reactions in the people that surround her. Lucas becomes, almost immediately, a pariah in his own community. The people around Klara – the police, child psychologists, teachers, friends, sibling – are frantic to convince her of the veracity of her accusation, and in doing so ‘fill in’ her imagination until she is unsure of her own mind; unable to distinguish memory from fiction.

Yet nothing about her lie is random, and so in one way the trailer advertises a narrative fallacy. For what The Hunt is really about is the absolute sexual confusion that exists within the community and, by extension, in modern European society. How can Klara’s lie be ‘random’, when just before she makes her accusation, her older brother and his friend run through the house and show her a picture of a woman engaged in a sex act on their mobile phones? It doesn’t take much to assume a wider context around Klara, for it surrounds all of us. Young girls are being coaxed into early sexualisation through advertising, movies, dolls, magazines, television and pop music. Vinterberg’s film adeptly makes the point that Klara’s lie is a result of confusion – a leakage of a kind of tectonic ambiguity which exists beneath contemporary society, muddying the relations between adults and children.

In a brief interview at this year’s London Film Festival, Vinterberg spoke of "a loss of innocence" in society, something which deeply upsets him, and recalled a time when he lived as a child in a commune, surround by "naked bodies and genitals, and it was all orange and warm and lovely." Those times are over, he declared ominously: "Now a child cannot even sit on someone’s lap without eyebrows being raised."

Perhaps then, it is no accident that The Hunt reaches theatrical release just as we arrive at the height of the BBC’s child abuse scandal, a story that has been so voraciously, almost gleefully reported as if it is a shock, when really these men were nothing more than child abusers posing as dodgy child abusers, for our entertainment. In an excellent article in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan suggests that this episode in our country’s narrative – the BBC’s own "ecclesiastical terror" – has become "our chosen national nightmare". And so our responses must be prurient outrage and hysterical horror, as if it has all come as a surprise, rather than as an uncomfortable reflection of what entertains us and what ambiguous sexual practices we are willing to tolerate, or ignore, for the price of our own entertainment. O’Hagan sharply writes: "We love our tots. Or, should I say: WE LOVE OUR TOTS? We know we do because the Mirror tells us we do, but would you please get out of the way because you’re blocking my view of another 14 year old girl crying her eyes out on The X Factor as a bunch of adults shatter her dreams."

Dan Davies, Jimmy Savile’s biographer, is thinking about calling his as yet unpublished book Apocalypse Now Then. It’s a brilliant title, as if we’ve reached some sort of hideous, kitsch-sexualised endgame, and are pretending to be surprised that it’s arrived.

So, to return to The Hunt, how can Klara’s lie be random, when in a sense she’s been groomed by society at large to confuse herself as an object of desire? The community around her and the accused Lucas never enter into any kind of discussion. The response is unitary: violent condemnation, hysteria, madness. In this sense, The Hunt is the wayward brother of Vinterberg’s celebrated feature debut Festen (1998). Lucas is beaten to a pulp in the local shop, bricks are thrown through his windows, and someone close to him is beaten up – all events that mirror the misguided vigilantism in 2000 when the News of the World ran its ‘Sarah’s Law’ campaign, naming and shaming offenders, which resulted in a paediatrician’s house being vandalised in South Wales and countless innocent people being driven from their homes simply for having the same name as somebody on the register. (This was to be one of then editor Rebekah Wade’s first glaring mistakes… again, we should have known.)

The Hunt has already been widely proclaimed as the Danish director’s return to form, after years in the wilderness following the bold declarations of the Dogme 95 manifesto and his Cannes hit Festen, and the perhaps inevitable creative misfires that followed (particularly confused were 2003’s It’s All About Love and 2010’s Submarino). The Hunt is a slick, incisive picture: aesthetically assured, narratively tight and convincing. This is a more mature return to the themes that Festen detonated so excitingly in its formal explorations 14 years ago. Yes, The Hunt is about ‘a random lie’, but more impressively it shines a light on the hysteria around child abuse and the way we treat the accused.

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