Some 14 years after Festen, Thomas Vinterberg is back in Competition at Cannes with his latest drama, The Hunt. It’s been a long road back, he tells Mike Goodridge.

In 1998, Thomas Vinterberg scored the coup of landing in Cannes Competition with his second feature, his third if you count his graduation film Last Round. The title which did it, Festen (or The Celebration in English), went on to become a sensation, sharing the jury prize, kickstarting the minimalist Dogme movement of which Vinterberg was an architect, scoring distribution deals in every territory and placing the director firmly on the global film-making map. It won him scores of awards, spawned a successful stage play and made him the object of furious attention from Hollywood. It was, he says, a distracting time.

“I got very confused by the Festen experience,” he explains. “Artistically it took away my focus for quite some time. I was like some football player after a big goal and the camera was pointing my way for far too long. It took me a while to get the camera pointed away from me and get me looking at the world again to find stories.”

His follow-ups to Festen - It’s All About Love (2003), Dear Wendy (2005), A Man Comes Home (2007) - were not well-received, and it was only with Submarino in 2010 that critics took another look. The dark portrait of troubled young brothers played in competition in Berlin and felt like a return to basics for the film-maker.

The return to Cannes Competition with The Hunt this year proves the Vinterberg renaissance is indeed a reality. Working with Danish star Mads Mikkelsen for the first time, and re-teaming with writer Tobias Lindholm with whom he successfully collaborated on Submarino, Vinterberg has clearly found a new confidence.

“I am trying to come back to the vulnerability in human beings and trying to find the human fragility,” he says. “That has always been my project. Even in the meanest bastards you can find something vulnerable and that’s what I am always looking for, and I am back doing that. I am constantly trying to find the purity that was in my graduation film, where I was honestly trying to regard some people in a certain situation. I still think it’s my best film.”

The Hunt, however, is set to be his best film in the eyes of many critics and audiences. (TrustNordisk has already done a number of key sales, including to France and the UK.) If Festen was a provocative tale of family and abuse, The Hunt takes the audience into uncomfortable grey areas in contemporary western society and raises more questions than it answers. Set in a small rural town where a false accusation by a child against Mikkelsen’s character sets off a chain of terrifying events, The Hunt addresses issues of identity, reputation and extreme political correctness.

“It is very important for me to emphasise that this man is innocent,” says Vinterberg. “I would even put it on the poster. I don’t want to play around with whether he is guilty or not. People will think it anyway, wondering if I’m playing tricks with them. They did that with Festen as well. But plots like that aren’t my ballgame. It’s like a trick you pull out of a hat. We are trying to do something else here.”

The film also defies conventional storytelling in that, for all the drama and sense of injustice in the story, there are no villains. “Everybody is innocent in this story,” he says. “Everybody is trying to do their best. It’s a sort of misconception of the world that makes his life go wrong.”

That misconception of the world in the film comes from sensitive issues around children: how we over-protect them and how we choose to believe that everything they say is true.

“There is a cliché that kids don’t lie,” says Vinterberg, “and in this film we claim that they do lie. They do invent stories or lie to make grown-ups happy. In that sense they become the demons of the film. It’s about kids destroying a man’s life.”

For all the small-town setting and Danishness of The Hunt, the themes it evokes are universal. The notion that a man’s character can so quickly become stained is a common one in today’s culture of social media, online rumour mills and tabloid hysteria.

“You can tell stories about other people or about yourself that very quickly become the identity of the person. This film is all about identity - how do you look to the world, and how do you create your own identity. These people give this man this mark and create this identity around him, and he will never be able to escape it. I find that really interesting and really frightening.”