Director: Bruno Dumont
WHEN asked why he had starred in so many biblical epics, smouldering 1940s Hollywood beefcake Victor Mature reckoned it was because he could “make with the holy look.” It’s a trait he shares with winsome teenage newcomer Julie Sokolowski, whose ability to exude a luminous spiritual quality in (and as) Hadewijch is the trump card of this typically ambitious and typically discombobulating new film from the provocative French writer-director Bruno Dumont.
‘New’ isn’t quite accurate, however: it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival back in September 2009 – September 11th, to be exact, an entirely appropriate date given the picture’s focus on urban terrorism, specifically as linked to fundamentalist religion. And not just Islamic extremism: Hadewijch, a novice nun known outside the convent as Céline, is a young woman so fervent in her faith that she’s asked to leave the nunnery for a spell in the real world.
Here she chafes against the banal, opulent upper-class Parisian milieu of her diplomat father and instead befriends a pair of working-class Muslim brothers – Yassine (Yassine Salime) and Nassir (Karl Sarafidis). Nassir, whose stance is primarily pragmatic and political (“Can anyone be innocent in a world where people vote?” he asks) is a little bemused by Céline’s all-consuming devotion. Yassine, however, recognises her as a spiritual sibling – and perhaps even as a potential comrade-in-arms…
This is the sixth feature by Dumont, a somewhat challenging and ‘difficult’ filmmaker whose previous films have all been released in the UK – eventually – attracting controversy, enthusiasm and bafflement in roughly equal measure. And like La Vie de Jesus (1997), L’Humanité (1999), the US-set Twentynine Palms (2003) and Flandres (2006), Hadewijch demands a certain degree of engagement on the part of the viewer – and commitment.
Dumont’s cinema is of a self-consciously stark, po-faced austerity which can feel decidedly alien to Anglo-Saxon audiences – and it’s crystal-clear that he shares many critics’ view that, with his preference for non-professional, inexperienced performers (who unsurprisingly evince a wide range of ability) he’s carrying on several traditions associated with the 20th century’s poet of unremittingly low-key, thornily spiritual French cinema, Robert Bresson.
Indeed, Bresson’s 1968 parable Mouchette is unmistakably the primary template for Hadewijch, right up to its watery finale – though Dumont’s tale has a rather different ending from that of Bresson. The exact meaning of that transcendently head-spinning coda – and thus of the entire film – is, however, a matter of opinion and debate. It involves the intercession of a crucial secondary figure, David (David Dewaele), a convict working as a caretaker in the nunnery, who, in an audacious structural ploy of Dumont’s screenplay, we’ve glimpsed at various stages throughout the story – without knowing how (or even if) his story is going to intersect with Hadewijch’s.
What David represents, and who he might actually be, are arguably the “key” to Hadewijch - if any key there is. Suffice it to say that this snaggle-toothed, grimily ethereal performer’s facial resemblance to Jim Caviezel (of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) could be termed a divine coincidence. Dewaele has a similar if rather larger role in Dumont’s followup to Hadewijch, Hors Satan (Dumont’s titles are usually left untranslated on this side of the Channel), which played at Cannes last May. And Dumont’s evolving oeuvre only makes sense when taken in toto, each film to some degree illuminating and strengthening the others.
That’s not much help for those who come to Hadewijch as their first experience of the director, of course. And some knowledge of the original Hadewijch, a 13th century Dutch mystic poet, would be a help – Dumont provides absolutely zero information about her in the film, but her importance to his themes here is evident from her writings: “He who wishes to follow Love’s way / Must regard neither cost nor shame / Nor pain, he must stand to everything / Even her most terrible commands.”
7th February, 2012
written for Tribune magazine