The paranoia afflicts the four principal characters: Iben (Danica Curcic), Malene (Amanda Collin), Anne-Lise (Sidse Baett Knudsen) and Camilla (Lene Maria Christensen), the team at a research centre in Copenhagen that publishes on and archives material about genocides. All four can be described as ‘normal people’, and like normal people they have issues and problems. Iben suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to her experience as an aid worker, which led to her being held hostage in Kenya. Malene, despite her youth, has arthritis that limits her movements and makes her fear for her job and relationship. Speaking of relationships, Camilla has a chequered history, one character from which continues to haunt her. And Anne-Lise, slightly older and from seemingly greater wealth, has a problem with her colleagues, whom she believes ignore and exclude her.
The workplace scenario is likely relatable to anyone who has had difficulties with colleagues. There may be nothing overtly hateful or threatening, but feelings of isolation and exclusion still occur nonetheless. Tensions between the team escalate when some of them receive threatening e-mails, possibly but not definitely related to the publications of Iben and Malene. This is the film’s master stroke, as the lack of certainty around these hateful and violent messages leads to suspicion and accusations, first subtle and then less so.
Nielsen effectively conveys the paranoia of the central four, both through lingering close-ups on their faces which allow the actors to speak volumes with their eyes, and through breakdown in the reliability of what appears on screen. All the characters’ fantasies are seen, but not in a way that is clearly demarcated. Iben repeatedly sees a Kenyan child soldier, both in her apartment and at the research centre, and the unity of both the narrative and Sabine Hviid’s darkly beautiful production design is ruptured by flashbacks that intrude into the space around Iben. Camilla sees her former lover watching her as she and her husband go to bed, and while quick cuts make it clear that this is her fantasy, the haunting presence is nonetheless prominent for her and the viewer. Anne-Lise has a sudden and genuinely shocking outburst of violence, and the relief when it proves to be a fantasy is undermined by the relatability of the moment. If a viewer has ever wanted to punch a co-worker, shove a rude person off the train tracks or even stab someone who upset them, they will likely feel a discomfiting recognition in these characters.
This relatability of feelings we may feel shame over makes the film extremely human in its presentation of flawed people. The Exception’s gender politics are upfront by concentrating on women and treating that as normal (shouldn’t be exceptional, but it is). Women’s sexuality is neither strange nor taboo; family is not the be-all-end-all since Iben and Malene are both unmarried and show no interest in children; female friendship is emphasised but comes with problems, as does any type of relationship. As events develop, aggressions escalate from passive to micro to blatant. Loyalties shift as empathetic behaviour is read as betrayal and gnawing paranoia becomes outright suspicion. A recurring shot of the research centre shelves makes them increasingly claustrophobic while the apartments of Iben and Malene shift from spaces of safety to malevolence, the lighting contracting until laptops are both the source of light as well as a pit of fear. Terse work meetings are superseded by actual crimes, the tension ratcheting up ever higher during a home invasion. Along the way, excepts appear from Iben’s articles that analyse and offer explanations for genocide, from the psychological to the sociological. With insightful discussion juxtaposed with archive footage of historical atrocities, this research forms an intriguing parallel to the exploits of our protagonists, while references to Denmark’s political history as well as the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s add further social and geopolitical dimensions. Are aggression and violence caused by mental disorders, social pressure, political expediency or something simpler? Are the e-mails the product of conscious malice or a divided personality? These questions persist throughout the film, uncertainty and ambiguity prevailing as the dominant moods. Very little is clarified, and eventual revelations could easily be self-fulfilled prophecies. This makes the film ever more unsettling, because what is more frightening than not knowing?
In its final act, the film slightly loses its way as organised crime become more than an implication, clarifications are provided and actual violence takes place. Then multiple endings start to pile up and it feels as though another edit might have been worthwhile. Despite this, the film concludes with pleasing ambiguity, the viewer still left uncertain about actually happened. Furthermore, it is a film that will linger in the mind, as the viewer wonders both what the truth was, and how they might react themselves in a comparable situation.