By Mike Collett-White
CANNES, France (Reuters) - Danish director Thomas Vinterberg burst on to the scene in Cannes in 1998 with the acclaimed "Festen", and critics say he is close to his best again this year with "The Hunt", a shocking take on child abuse and its impact on a small community.
Unlike some movies on the same theme, The Hunt leaves no doubt as to the main character's innocence.
Lucas, played by Danish star Mads Mikkelsen, is a nursery school teacher adored by the children and an integral part of a closely-knit circle of friends.
But when he is accused of sexual abuse by the young daughter of his best friend, smarting after he disciplines her for being over-affectionate, most of his colleagues and loved ones quickly assume the worst.
Events spiral out of control as the besmirched Lucas fights a lonely battle to prove his innocence and work his way back into a society that may never truly accept him again.
Rather than running away, he decides to confront his doubters, leading to tense standoffs and explosions of violence, invariably ending in humiliation.
Vinterberg portrays adults' desire to believe children and protect them at all costs.
"In Denmark we have a saying that children and drunk people always tell the truth," he told reporters ahead of the red carpet world premiere in Cannes on Sunday. "Yes, we are claiming that this is not always the truth."
"OUR OWN SICK FANTASY"
The director said he researched many child abuse cases in order to make his movie.
"Frighteningly enough there are a lot of these cases. Early in the project (we) had to step out of real life and into drama so this is fully fiction and our own sick fantasy you could say."
He called the community he portrays as a "microcosm" of a wider phenomenon - the speed and ease with which false rumors can spread and harm reputations in the age of the internet.
The Hunt is one of 22 films in competition in Cannes, which ends with an awards ceremony next Sunday where Mikkelsen is seen as a contender for the best actor award.
Up against popular entries like Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" from Romania and Austrian auteur Michael Haneke's well-received "Love", may be a long shot for the coveted Palme d'Or for best picture.
"I'm trying not to participate in this kind of handball or football game," he replied, when asked how he felt about competing for awards in Cannes.
"This festival for me is the only festival in the world that protects the small, the pure and personal film and yet has the same strong amount of glamour around it.
"Of course, we're part of the competition, of course I would love to bring back some gold, but I truly feel that the mission is completed already."
One critic questioned the plausibility of elements of the plot, and amid loud applause there were a few boos after a press screening of The Hunt, but reviews have praised its gut-wrenching power.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White Editing by Maria Golovnina)