Despite a small budget and funding secured from about half a dozen Scandinavian film funds, The Hunt premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it was the first Danish film to make it into the competition for about 14 years. Well-received by judges and critics alike, the film landed a prize for its leading man and then went on to secure Best Foreign Language Film nominations at both the Oscars and Golden Globes. The reason for this warm reception is that the man responsible for directing it has pointedly refused to claim responsibility for his best-known film. The man in question is Thomas Vinterberg and the film in question is Festen, the first film created under the strictures of the radical Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto that also launched the career of Lars von Trier.
Shot entirely on location with hand-held cameras and without props, sets or lighting, Festen told of a disastrous birthday celebration at which a family patriarch is accused of having molested two of his own children. Far from shutting the matter down, the family’s inevitable denial of the patriarch’s guilt only serves to fan the flames of anger and resentment until years of distrust explode in a fireball of violence and madness that consumes what is left of the family’s loyalty and trust. I mention Festen not only because it is easily Vinterberg’s best-known film, but also because it shares a good number of themes and ideas with The Hunt. However, while Festen is an unashamedly youthful film that draws on feelings of betrayal and confusion and hurls them into the face of a complacent older generation, The Hunt draws on a decidedly more traditional emotional palette including smug moral certitude and emotional restraint. The difference between to the two films is so stark that it is tempting to view The Hunt as the result of an aging Vinterberg having chosen to shift his sympathies from angry accuser to vilified accused but a more straightforward reading of this film would be to view The Hunt as a celebration of patriarchal values and women who know when to keep their cunt mouths shut.
Set in an isolated Danish community, the film revolves around a quiet divorcee who works as a kindergarten teacher. The divorcee in question is named Lucas and is played by Mads Mikkelson, an actor best known for playing a succession of brooding Nordic tough guys with lank hair and leather jackets. While this unusual piece of casting makes perfect sense in the broader context of the film, Mikkelson is still surprisingly good as a quiet man who wins the respect of his community and the love of his juvenile charges by according them the utmost dignity and talking to them with kindness, respect and not a hint of condescension. In fact, the children come to adore Lucas so much that his best friend’s tiny daughter Klara convinces herself that she is in love with her teacher and presents him with a heart and a kiss of the lips. Despite being visibly shaken, Lucas gently makes it clear to Klara that such kisses are for adults and that she would be much better off giving her heart to a boy of her own age. Confused and hurt, Klara retreats to a room and sits in the dark until a female teacher comes across her, at which point Klara draws on some stuff she overheard from a bunch of teenaged boys and concocts a story that Lucas showed her his erect penis.
From there things move surprisingly quickly.
Before I delve into the meat of the story, I feel it’s worth pointing out that The Hunt is a beautifully made film. Much like Festen (and all the other Dogme films), The Hunt is shot entirely on hand-held cameras whose juddering movements lend the film’s point of view a distinctively subjective feel. Even more impressive is the way that Vinterberg combines this subjective POV with lingering close-ups and a tendency to shoot the recipients of terrible news rather than the people delivering it. Taken together and combined with a typically restrained Scandinavian script, the film’s visuals perfectly capture the sense of huge emotional turmoil passing through the characters and out into the wider community without anything being put into words. More than anything else, The Hunt is a film about strong feelings and the need to keep them under tight control.
Eager to avoid a scandal and ensure that Klara’s complaints are listened to, Lucas’s female colleague interrogates Klara using a series of incredibly leading questions that serve only to implant disgusting ideas in Klara’s head and flesh out a vindictive fib into the kind of toxic fantasy in which parents and officials can believe. Sensing that things are spinning out of control, Klara tries to back away from the words placed in her mouth but the adults have stopped listening; When Klara approaches her mother and confesses that she made the whole thing up, the mother’s response is to dismiss the child’s concerns with talk of repressed memories. Unlike Lucas, Klara’s mother neither listens to what she has to say nor speaks in terms that she is likely to understand.
Before the police have even been called, the rumours begin to circulate around town as the children set about creating a lavish fantasy involving a series of rapes in Lucas’s non-existent basement. With everyone desperate to take a stand against a paedophile, Lucas is denounced by his best friend and banned from the local grocery store. When Lucas’s estranged son turns up and tries to make the locals see sense, some of the town’s working class men take it upon themselves to give him a kicking leading to an amazingly brutal scene in which an officially cleared Lucas is beaten to a bloody pulp for daring to go shopping.
As effective as Vinterberg’s depiction of a small community descending into violence may be, it really isn’t anything that we haven’t seen before. This vision of human civilisation as a thin layer of easily broken ice atop an ocean of unfathomable savagery is just about as old a saw as you can possible imagine. However, the trick when playing an old saw is to keep coming up with new tunes and so, in order for The Hunt to pass muster, Vinterberg has to find a way of turning yet another account of human savagery into something genuinely new and insightful. Naturally, this invites uncomfortable comparisons with works that have explored similar areas including classic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, classic plays such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and classic films such as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau. What makes these comparisons uncomfortable is that while all of these classic works used their turn at the saw to challenge public morals and confront humanity with the need for change, Vinterberg seems content to use his take on mass hysteria to defend traditional values. In fact, The Hunt is one of the most rigorously misogynistic films that I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing.
The film’s hatred of women is evident in its frequent use of reductive demographic juxtapositions: Throughout the film, it just so happens that whenever people discuss Lucas’s innocence, the people doing the discussing are men whereas anyone spreading rumours or hatching ugly plans are inevitably women. This broad moral dichotomy is then reflected in the particular case of Klara’s parents and the fact that when Klara confesses everything to her mother, her mother carries on persecuting Lucas. Conversely, when Klara later repeats this confession to her father, her father immediately believes her and has to threaten his wife with violence when she tries to stop him from apologising to Lucas and attempting to save their friendship. Though this kind of gendered morality is undoubtedly sexist, it is the kind of sexism that pops up in a lot of film and TV and so it is tempting to view The Hunt as being afflicted with a sexism born of intellectual laziness rather than of true hostility to women. Unfortunately, this rather charitable interpretation simply does not stand up to close scrutiny.
The first sign that we are dealing with a deliberate attack on women manifests itself when a beautiful foreign woman takes an incomprehensible shine to Lucas and effectively throws herself at him. This causes the fragile Lucas to let his guard down just long enough for his new paramour to betray him at the behest of a bunch of middle-aged women that she barely knows. Never mentioned beyond these few short scenes, Lucas’s relationship with the foreign woman serves only to broaden the critique and remind us that we are not dealing with a particular group of evil women but an evil that lurks in all women regardless of age or culture.
While making a film in which a bunch of women take it upon themselves to persecute a moral paragon already suggests the presence of profoundly misogynistic thought patterns, Vinterberg is clearly a more sophisticated thinker than your average fedora-wearing men’s rights advocate. Far from an inarticulate expression of rage and hatred, Vinterberg’s misogyny takes a surprisingly rigorous form that recalls not only the legendary misogynists of the German enlightenment but also the reactionary gender politics of the so-called Dark Enlightenment pioneered by thinkers such as Nick Land and Mencius Moldbug.
Philosophical misogyny assumes a number of different forms, one of its most enduring formulations is the idea that men and women are happiest when allowed to exist in different but mutually supportive worlds with their own rules and functions. According to the German philosopher Hegel:
Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy and certain forms of artistic production… Women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality, but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions.
Other thinkers such Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were more direct in that they viewed women as being entirely unfit for anything other than blind obedience. A more sophisticated variant of this position is that of Otto Weininger whose infamous book Sex and Character argued for the existence of ‘male’ and ‘female’ aspects which means that men tend to be active, productive, conscious, moral and logical while women along with gay and Jewish people tend to be passive, unproductive, unconscious, amoral and illogical.
The major difference between something like The Hunt and the idiotic bleating of your average Reddit-dwelling MRA is that Vinterberg’s gender politics do not begin and end with bad-mouthing women. Instead he goes out of his way to demonstrate the differences between male and female worlds and why it is that women should not venture into traditionally male spheres of influence.
Set in a remote rural community, the film takes its name as much from the witch-hunt that takes place following Klara’s accusation as it does from the fact that the community’s primary venue for male bonding is the hunting of deer. Initially, Vinterberg pokes gentle fun at the community’s homosocial bonding rituals by portraying Lucas’s fellow hunters as a bunch of drunken idiots who spend their time sat at kitchen tables singing drinking songs. The Hunt’s use of drinking songs is another one of those signs that Vinterberg’s sympathies have shifted since Festen as while Festen featured a memorable scene in which a racist uses a drinking song to shame and intimidate his sister’s African boyfriend, The Hunt uses drinking songs as an expression of friendship and emotional openness. For example, when rumours begin to spread about Lucas’s involvement with the foreign woman, his fellow hunters use song first to encourage him to admit his feelings and then to celebrate the fact that he has finally gotten over his divorce and begun to seek new sources of happiness. The benign and supportive nature of these male spaces simply could not be more different to the misery and bile that spill from the film’s female spaces.
Already intensely problematic, this juxtaposition of supportive male environments and toxic female environments is made infinitely worse by the revelation that the drunken boors who encouraged Lucas to sing are actually members of an exclusive hunting fraternity comprising the richest and best-connected men in town.
When Lucas is taken in for questioning by the police, he inadvertently locks his estranged son Michael out of the house. After disastrously trying to talk some sense into both Klara’s parents and a number of townsfolk, Michael winds up on the doorstep of one of Lucas’s hunting buddies. The doorstep in question forms part of a palatial residence and as Michael makes his way through the hall and towards the kitchen table, he looks up towards the first floor and sees a bunch of young girls visible through the bar-like bannisters. Rather than simply dehumanising the young women, the bars create an impression of divided space: The men sit downstairs and have serious discussions at the kitchen table while the women who know their place have fun upstairs. This impression of divided space grows as the hunters reveal themselves to be sophisticated and reasonable men who are utterly convinced of Lucas’s innocence. Once Lucas is cleared of all charges, the hunters very publically take him to their breast and this sends a message to the community (including Lucas’s best friend) that the matter is now definitively closed.
Not just a collection of good men, the wealth and social stature of the hunters identifies them as patriarchal figures. Indeed, when the town’s women try to deal with a suspected paedophile, all their gossip produces is the persecution of an innocent man. However, when the town’s patriarchs finally get involved, Lucas’s innocence immediately becomes apparent and the entire matter is cleared up with minimal fuss and absolutely zero violence or persecution. The contrast between these two attempts at community leadership is not just about the difference between hysterical women and reasonable men, it is also a warning against women getting involved in matters best left to men of beard and substance.
The Hunt suggests that while women can be wonderful mothers, caring teachers and enthusiastic lovers, they cannot be allowed to assume positions of power. The sickening rigour of the film’s patriarchal values is particularly evident in the way that Lucas and Michael receive their respective beatings at the hands of working-class men acting on information passed to them by women. Thus the film’s sickening gender politics intersect with a more generalised regressive politics that portrays members of the working class as unthinking brutes who require the leadership of their betters lest they begin beating innocent people to death.
Far from being against type, the much-celebrated casting of Mads Mikkelson makes perfect sense once one realises that The Hunt is a celebration of far right politics and Nordic masculinity. Though Mikkelson plays a quiet divorcee, his ability to embody traditional patriarchal values such as moral certainty, community leadership and inner strength are entirely what you would expect from an actor who made his name playing a string of laconic tough guys. What do you think happens to the brilliant psychopaths, ruthless henchmen, brooding cops and honourable drug dealers when they get old and rich? They retire to the country, join hunting fraternities and have big important discussions that silly little women could never hope to understand.
Just as distressing as Vinterberg’s full-throated defence of societies built along patriarchal lines are the rhetorical stratagems he deploys to make his case. Indeed, one of the most striking things about The Hunt is that is describes a totally unrealistic chain of events: From the child’s decision to draw on an incomprehensible conversation fragment to concoct her vindictive lie to the speed with which the community turns against Lucas and the complete absence of legal structures (was Lucas ever charged with a crime? Were Klara or her parents actually interviewed by the police?); Every detail of The Hunt points to the need for a group of wise and community-spirited people who can distance themselves from emotional issues and act in a just and reasoned manner to resolve conflicts. Vinterberg concludes that wealthy and well-connected men should fill this role but the only reason this conclusion seems plausible is because the director has constructed a world that stacks the deck in his favour:
Firstly, the only reason that wealthy and well-connected men emerge as plausible guardians of the peace is because The Hunt grotesquely slanders everyone who is not a wealthy middle-aged Danish man with shedloads of social capital. In the world of The Hunt, women cannot be trusted to make important decisions and neither can foreigners or members of the working class. Naturally, if The Hunt takes place in a world where everyone other than wealthy white people are evil then it follows that wealthy white people must have the power to make all the important decisions. However, the rhetorical force of this conclusion is entirely undermined by the fact that the world of The Hunt is not our world. In our world, wealthy middle-aged men have an almost unimaginably bad track record when it comes to making reasoned and logical decisions. To suggest that the world of The Hunt is our world is to confuse reality with right-wing fantasy.
Secondly, even if we assume that The Hunt is correct in calling for a class of people who can distance themselves from emotive issues and investigate unpleasant crimes without losing either their reason or their commitment to justice, then it is hard to see why that group should be a local hunting fraternity. Again, in the real world, this function is filled by an independent judiciary and professional police force and the only reason that these people are not handed powers in the world of The Hunt is because Vinterberg has chosen to embed his film in a right-wing fantasy where the police and judiciary have no real powers beyond the ability to lock people in the cells over night. Given that real world judiciaries and police forces have the power to not only investigate crimes but also clear names and protect the innocent from vigilante attack, the film’s conclusion that only bearded middle-aged men should be allowed to make decisions is at best idiotic and at worst deliberately dishonest.
Readers of fantasy and science fiction literature will recognise this type of argumentative technique. Recently, it has been put to good use in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series where the nature of the world and the form of vampirism that features in the novel conspire to engineer a situation in which a modern teenaged girl would rightly and rationally yearn to be in a relationship with a secretive and domineering man who watches her sleep and denies her all agency including the ability to have sex before marriage. As in the case of The Hunt, the point of Twilight is that while the novels take place in a fantasy world, the fantasy world resembles our world closely enough that uncritical members of the audience might fail to detect the work’s fundamental unreality and conclude that domineering boyfriends are acceptable and that men with beards are much better at making decisions than women. This technique is actually one of the oldest tricks in the genre book and Cory Doctorow has recently described its use as an example of ‘Moral Hazard’. Of a short story in which the world is constructed in such a way that pushing an innocent stowaway out the airlock door seems not only reasonable but also moral, Doctorow writes:
It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.
Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns wilful ignorance into a profitable strategy.
One instantly recognisable example of this type of rhetorical strategy being deployed in a real world political context is that of the ticking time bomb that will kill hundreds unless the authorities can get a terrorist suspect to tell them the location of the bomb. In a fantasy world in which such a bomb exists and torture serves as a reliable means of information extraction, it is not only reasonable but also moral to torture the suspect. The problem with this line of argument is that the world described in this argument is not the real world but a right-wing fantasy. In the real world, there is and never has been a conveniently ticking bomb and torturing people only gets them to admit to whatever it is that you want them to admit. To confuse reality with fantasy is at best naïve and at worst, downright sinister. The Hunt deliberately confuses reality with fantasy in an effort to prove a particular point meaning that Vinterberg and his co-writer are a pair of sinister right-wing misogynists.
It is hard to imagine a more hideously right-wing film than Vinterberg’s The Hunt but the most disturbing thing about this film is not the fact that it got made with public money and then went on to win a number of prizes, it’s the fact that no established film critic seemed to notice its hideous and unrelenting misogyny. One of these days, the online social justice movement is going to take an interest in world cinema and when that happens I will be there, laughing and eating popcorn as films like The Hunt make you want to watch things burn.