Both Thomas Vinterberg's Jangten (The Hunt) and Michael Haneke's Amour (Love) mix horror and hope.
Jagten (The Hunt) tells a story of mob mentality with a Danish twist -- the innocent victim hardly fights back. Recently divorced, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is working as a kindergarten teacher and courting a new girlfriend when he's accused of child abuse. Director Thomas Vinterberg, cofounder of the Dogme movement, introduces this crisis with a few scenes that clear Lucas of any suspicion, laying out the chain of events that have led to the accusation. A charming and precocious blond preschooler, five-year-old Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), mad at her teacher, repeats words her brothers said in passing and nods a few times, confused, when questioned by a psychologist.
Her story changes Lucas' life. When a witch-hunt commences, he makes a few attempts to talk to his accusers but, once stonewalled, goes on living in the same town. This even as other children remember other fictional abuses. Lucas’s best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), who also happens to be Klara’s father, attacks him. His girlfriend doubts his innocence. He's arrested and held for a day by the police, then pelted with stones at his own home. His dog is killed and left at his doorstep. Only two people support him -- his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) and Marcus' godfather (Lars Ranthe) -- but their efforts to help are futile. The rainy brown tinge of autumn forms an apt visual backdrop to the catastrophe, and the faces of ordinary townspeople begin to resemble faces in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s darker paintings.
Remarkably, Lucas never properly confronts the woman who most directly contributes to his ordeal. Grethe (Susse Wold), head of the kindergarten and notorious busybody, officiously spreads the news of his guilt; she also happens to be his ex-wife. Frustrated audience members -- the film screened in competition at Cannes -- burst into applause when he finally fights back: after being beaten up, pelted with food cans, and chased away from a supermarket, he returns to head-butt one of his assailants and retrieve his groceries. However grim and angry his bleeding face appears on the screen, Lucas remains perpetually open to reconciliation, despite his neighbors' apparently infinite suspicions.
Like Jangte, Michael Haneke's Amour (Love) -- mixes horror and hope. Soon after the most despondent moment in Amour (also screening in competition), elderly George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) catches a pigeon that has flown through his window with a blanket. Given that this is a Haneke film, we might expect the pigeon to end up with a broken neck. Yet, when George writes his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an affectionate letter saying he let the pigeon out, we believe him.
Running 127 minutes, the movie gradually reveals the indignities of a terminal illness in old age, a familiar-seeming story peppered with ominous details. First, George and Anne, both retired musicians, find traces of apartment break-in when they come home from a concert by pianist Alexandre Tharaud, appearing here simultaneously as himself and as Anne’s former student. Then, Anne goes into trance during breakfast, and when George leaves tap water running while he runs to get help, hears his wife, now well again, turn it off.
Even as these odd occurrences lead us to anticipate another intricate portrait of evil, after Haneke’s eerie Das weiße Band (White Ribbon), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009, it's not long before we see this is a different sort of tale. Somewhat unexpectedly, Amour delivers on the promise of its title, as it is, in the end, a film full of tenderness and care. As Anne's condition deteriorates -- she's paralyzed on the right side, then bedridden, then confused and barely able to speak -- George remains unwaveringly devoted to her. Trintingant portrays George’s quiet and unassuming determination to abide by Anne’s wishes to avoid the hospital as long as possible. George withstands even his daughter Eva’s (Isabelle Huppert) increasingly hysterical and uncomprehending demands.
Throughout the couple's trials, the film creates a space that seems to protect Anne as much as possible from the outside world. The action -- initially slow, then picking up suspense and speed -- unfolds almost entirely in their apartment. This small space asks us to contemplate the physical and emotional shifts that come with old age. It might also encourage us to contemplate a cinematic subgenre, increasingly popular at Cannes, including Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry (2010), Andreas Dresen’s Cloud 9 (2008), and Ken Loach’s Another Year (2010). We're not surprised, at last, that Haneke's film takes this subject to its darkest limits.