Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Hunt: Innocent Lies and The Perversion of Hysteria


Recently, I watched The Hunt, a shocking and thought provoking Danish movie that was a 2014 Academy Award submission for the best foreign language film.  The Hunt stars Mads Mikkelsen as kind-hearted but sad Lucas, a recently divorced father of a teenage son and a kindergarten teacher's aide who has been laid off from his own high school teaching job.

Early in the movie, we see Lucas interacting with the students, who clearly love him.  Lucas's protective bond with Klara, one of his kindergarten students and his best friend, Theo's, daughter is particularly apparent.  Theo and his wife love Klara but she is not always prioritized and often seems lonely.  As a result, she connects with Lucas, who gives her the attention she's lacking at home.

One day, while playing during recess at school Klara kisses Lucas on the mouth.  Lucas scolds Klara saying specifically she shouldn't kiss people outside of her family like that.  Klara is clearly embarrassed and angered and later that evening tells her teacher that she doesn't like Lucas because he is mean.  When her teacher responds with confusion, Klara says Lucas showed her his penis "pointing up," the same term a friend of her teenaged brother used the previous day when showing her a picture of an erect penis.

 It is obvious that the accusations aren't true; and Klara later says it was just something "stupid" she made up - that Lucas didn't do anything. But, by that point, the police are involved and adults tell the girl she is only trying to forget something awful, a normal behavior after what happened.  To make matters worse, other parents begin questioning their own kids, who begin accusing Lucas of similar behaviors. Hysteria erupts and Lucas is arrested based on the accusations.

As details of the children's stories emerge it becomes clear that they are not telling the truth; and a judge dismisses the charges against Lucas. However, the townspeople remain convinced of Lucas's guilt.  He is beat up when he tries to buy groceries. His dog is murdered and left in front of his house. He is, for all intents and purposes, cast out of the town.

Lucas, a victim of hysteria

Eventually, Klara's parents come to believe that Lucas is innocent and slowly the townspeople seem to begin to treat Lucas with the dignity afforded him prior to the accusations.  However, the final scene, when Lucas and his friends take their sons hunting, demonstrates that doubt about his innocence still exists when a bullet so narrowly misses him that, for an instant, Lucas believes he has been hit. Whether the near miss is intentional or not is irrelevant because the fear it arouses in Lucas is symbolic of the lasting impact of the accusations and the hysteria that followed have had, and will continue to have, on Lucas's sense of safety. 

In some sense The Hunt is a re-telling of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Like The Crucible, The Hunt pits one of our greatest disgusts, the sexual abuse of an innocent (or in the case of The Crucible's Abigail, a seeming innocent) young person, against one of our greatest fears, the loss of a good reputation as a result of false accusations. Moreover, both pieces are concerned with illuminating the danger of hysteria.  However, The Hunt, with its modern setting and absence of obvious metaphor is far eerier. Quite simply, what happens to Lucas could happen to you or someone you know.

Culturally, we consider childhood sacred. We want to believe that children are perfectly unblemished and  incapable of making terrible things up. To a degree this is true. Such stories don't come from nowhere; in Klara's case she had just been exposed to the idea of an erect penis and knew there was something shocking about it.  But she didn't really understand what a penis "pointing up" would mean to an adult.

More frightening than Klara's accusations are the behaviors of the adults.  First, when Klara struggles to recount her accusation, adult investigators begin asking leading questions and respond positively when she offers information that seems to support her original story.  As mentioned earlier, when she tells her mom the accusations aren't true, her mom doesn't believe her, and tells her she is only trying to forget this horrible thing that happened. Klara tries to tell the truth, and when she is told her truth is wrong, she becomes confused and searches for the response the adults want. Considering the seriousness of the accusations, the adult reaction is understandable. And, on some level it would be more frightening to Klara's parents to acknowledge the accusations were false because it would not explain how Klara knew penises "point up." The lack of a known origin for Klara's knowledge makes it impossible to punish OR control.  In short, Klara will not be forever innocent - no child will; and the chipping away at that innocence happens in bits and pieces. A found sexual image. An overheard innuendo. A news story.

Even the most open and well-intentioned parents can't completely control exposure to these bits and pieces that impact their kids. That is the real horror for the parents and the real explanation for the hysteria we see in The Hunt. Had Lucas been guilty, the attacks might be warranted. But because Lucas is innocent, his abuse becomes symbolic of the community's shared grief over the inevitable loss of their children's innocence and their helplessness to stop it. However, as in The Crucible, it is the hysteria that is the true perversion. Hysteria leads to real violent abuse of an innocent and that abuse is every bit as perverted as the abuse Klara initially alleges.