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Actor Thomas Bo Larsen smokes an electronic cigarette during a press conference for The Hunt at the 65th international film festival, in Cannes Sunday, May 20. — Photo AP

CANNES: “The Hunt”, a taut psychological thriller starring Danish heart-throb Mads Mikkelsen as a man falsely accused of molesting a child, emerged Sunday as a hot contender at Cannes.

With a controversial take on an intensely emotional issue, director Thomas Vinterberg returned to cinema's top international showcase 14 years after scooping up the Grand Prix runner-up prize with “Festen” (The Celebration).

The new picture, which was enthusiastically applauded at preview screenings for critics ahead of its red-carpet premiere, presents Lucas, a divorced father of a teenage boy who is working at a creche.

A young girl, the daughter of Lucas's best friend, develops a crush on him while in his care and when he gently explains the boundaries of their friendship, she begins to pout.

Later, she tells the creche director that she doesn't like Lucas anymore and claims that she has seen his genitals — an accusation she later tries to retract but only after suspicion has spiralled out of control.

A witch-hunt ensues against Lucas, a hobby marksman, and as the mass hysteria takes hold, his life crumbles around him and he loses his job, his new lover, life-long friends and, potentially, access to his beloved son.

Only the son and a close old friend stand by him as the community descends into paranoia and other children, getting swept up in the frenzy, accuse Lucas of molesting them as well.

Mikkelsen, best known to international audiences for his turn as Le Chiffre in the 2006 James Bond picture “Casino Royale” and now starring in the Scandinavian blockbuster “A Royal Affair”, said the material required a delicate touch.

“We know for sure that way too many kids are being abused out there. We know that, we're not questioning that,” he told reporters.

“But for us it was very much about when you love something as much as you can love a child that love can turn into fear when something happens or might happen. And society... can implode with this fear.”Vinterberg noted that he had dealt with the subject of adult survivors of child abuse in “Festen” and had now flipped the story to explore how fast a rumour can become fact due to now heightened sensitivity to the issue.

“I grew up in a hippie commune surrounded by genitals and it was all very pure, all very innocent. And things have changed, things have become colder and more fearful obviously and we've lost innocence, for good reasons, of course,”he said.

“I was here to tell that in '98 (with 'Festen'). Now I'm here to tell the antithesis.” Vinterberg, who has also directed music videos for Blur and Metallica, written for Vienna's renowned Burgtheater and was a founding member with Lars von Trier of the Dogme 95 no-frills film-making movement, denied he had a particularly bleak view of his society.

“I guess not only Denmark but in Scandinavia in general we have always been telling these dark tales,” he said.

“This is not an entire image of our country, this is a dark tale from our country, which is a shire of happy little hobbits, sometimes very stern hobbits, but quite happy people in general.”Asked about the unsettling final act to his drama, Vinterberg quipped: “Happy endings? We're not used to that in Denmark.” "The Hunt” is one of 22 films vying for the Palme d'Or top prize in Cannes, to be awarded on May 27.