By Michael Koresky
Dir. Bruno Dumont, France, IFC Films
Never one to shy away from controversial subject matter or to give audiences an easy ride, Bruno Dumont willingly walks into an ideological minefield for his latest, Hadewijch. Though the term “provocateur” has undoubtedly derogatory connotations these days in critic speak, perhaps from the omnipresence of directors selling volatile wares (many dare not call an admired filmmaker a provocateur, whether it’s Breillat, von Trier, or God forbid, Korine, for fear of reducing him or her to the level of trickster), it’s neither wrong nor reductive to name Dumont as such. This is because in the past decade Dumont has proven time and again, from his maddening Bressonian murder mystery L’Humanité to his road-movie horror show Twentynine Palms (a far more precise and frightening depiction of male-female relations as bloody nightmare than Antichrist) to his gender-war war film Flandres, that he’s undoubtedly, unashamedly more interested in who’s watching, and how they’re watching, than who’s on screen. Eliciting a viewer response is paramount to this philosopher and professor turned filmmaker. The result of course, has been constant audience alienation and ultimate resentment; he’s been accordingly targeted as misanthropic, detached, and rigid.
That I find Dumont’s work to be the opposite of all of those easily tossed-about adjectives matters little since everyone will take away something different from his purposely obtuse, narratively ambiguous works, in which character motivation is muffled and catharsis is severely complicated. Hadewijch is perhaps his most overt example of these two approaches, even if the film is superficially his least shocking. Whereas some of his earlier films have been said to fall into the camp of what James Quandt dubbed the New French Extremity (although I would argue that despite his occasional forays into genital mutilation, it’s wholly unfair and completely mindless to lump them in with such desperate-to-offend horror sensations as Frontièr(s) and Inside), Hadewijch is relatively restrained in its visual and narrative tactics, subdued in its exploration of inner torment.
Yet most remarkable is Dumont’s sudden turn towards a sort of psychological portraiture—the main figure of this film about asceticism may be as impenetrable as other Dumont protagonists, but she’s also bountifully human and played by a skilled, even charismatic actress (Julie Sokolowski)—a major change from the purposely petrified people who populated Flandres and especially L’Humanité (for which Emmanuel Schotté and Séverine Caneele were loudly booed when they won acting awards at Cannes, presumably for their noticeable lack of craft). However, this should not be seen as “progress,” so much as a distinctive choice, one that’s essential to the beguiling, upsetting experience of Hadewijch, in which we’re invited to try and understand a young woman for her attributes and decisions, wrestling with our responses to her own, only to find our identification severely rebuffed. If the routes Dumont takes to get us there constitute some of his least elegant, most ideologically debatable narrative passages, he also arrives at one of his most provocative existential inquiries into the nature of human violence yet.
After a chilled forest introduction, in which our protagonist, a teenage girl named Céline (Sokolowski), traverses over leaves and snapping twigs, her breath visibly hanging in the damp air, and a following disassociated, lengthy shot of a crane lowering iron works into the middle of a crumbling church yard (bearing a striking mix of the Gothic and the modern), Dumont settles us into a narrative set-up that functions, amusingly, like a brittle updating of The Sound of Music. The devoutly religious Céline has been living, and possibly training, at an abbey for some time as a refugee from a secular world she doesn’t feel a part of; yet her hopes to get closer to God through living as a nun are dashed when the Mother Superior informs her that she will have to finally leave the premises. The specific reasons for her being cast out of this sheltered world, named Hadewijch (for the 13th-century poet and mystic who rejected human love in favor of a holy communion with the lord), are not spoken of, yet it’s made clear that the nuns feel that she is not made for a truly ascetic life. She has confused abstinence with martyrdom, claims one. Alas, Céline is merely human, whereas she wants to be a righteous vessel for God’s love; but she is cast out of this world, and its literal garden.
Her banishment back to the world does not entail serving as the governess for seven unruly children (it’s doubtful Céline would ever be able to come up with a list of enough “favorite things” to sing about), but instead returning to the grotesquely ornate, gold-encrusted home of her wealthy Parisian parents. She’s again just a girl, a theology student, adrift in an urban landscape that has no time or understanding for her self-abnegation, and trapped with a professed “autocrat” father who doesn’t even try to reach her on a basic empathetic level. By happenstance she meets Yassine (Yassine Salime), an Arab boy from the projects, in a café, and for a while their relationship seems to constitute a fairly by-the-numbers portrait of different types of teenage angst butted up against one another: he’s affably horny, she’s defiantly chaste. Though they become quick friends (he’s even invited to her house for dinner, resulting in a meet-the-parents scenario made predictably awkward by the gaping class chasm existing between Yassine and her family), he remains impatient and aghast at Céline’s decision to stay a virgin in order to give herself completely to God, often trying, unsuccessfully, to talk her into becoming his girlfriend.
Of course, this being Dumont, Céline and Yassine’s relationship, though punctuated by freeing rides on pilfered motorcycles and recognizably teenage conversations (“He’s a jerk,” Céline says about her father), is heading in an ominous direction. The first signs of such occur when Céline meets Yassine’s brother, Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who invites her to an after-hours Islam discussion group, in the back of a snack shop. Though obviously out of place, the white Céline betrays no sign of self-conscious outsiderness, indicative perhaps both of her unflagging confidence in her beliefs and also a societal disconnect. Céline and Nassir, who’s more militantly Islamic than his largely indifferent younger brother, immediately strike up a relationship based on theological debate and the question of human response and action in the face of a silent god. Their connection initially seems strictly intellectual, though as the film continues things move into the realm of the horribly physical and immediate, if never sexual.
It’s here that Dumont makes his boldest move, and Hadewijch becomes a distinctly contemporary, even topical, treatise on faith and extremism. Yet with his usual mix of dangerous subject matter and emotional and aesthetic aloofness, there’s no final or sure way to categorize his message. Considering the apparent equivalency Dumont establishes between Christianity and Islam by conjoining the two in one horrific act, Hadewijch would seem to poke and nudge at our preconceptions about religious fundamentalism; one could also argue that he’s even purposely using Islamic terrorism merely as a plot device to get at the idea of the universal dangers of blind faith, specifically in Christianity. An initial, necessarily superficial reading would mark the film as hugely politically problematic, especially if we take literally the events of the film’s final passage and if we see the film’s portrait of modern-day Paris as in any way ethnographic or reflective of reality (in which case, one could argue the offensive ridiculousness of Céline falling in so easily with nefarious Arabs, ready to indoctrinate her). And let’s not forget that Dumont once said, “Cinema is not reality. Reality does not interest me.”
Yet as close as he gets to Céline, and as largely emotionally accessible as the film seems throughout (despite the protagonist’s defiant impenetrability), Dumont ultimately keeps a philosophical distance, which finally allows the film to enter an unreal, nearly supernatural realm. How he accomplishes this is not through literal intervention or blatant climactic statement-making, as in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, but through the slightest alterations of how we witness this world. Violence does occur (if less graphically than in his earlier films), yet as in all of Dumont’s work, terrible climactic acts lend his films, characters, or audiences no closure. There’s a moment of redemption at the film’s conclusion, but we still feel adrift in a netherworld; and because we are aligned with Céline’s desperation, we’re aware that this sense of being unmoored comes from her (and thus our) incongruousness in a secular world.
If one reads Hadewijch as a simple excoriation of organized religion, then they haven’t paid much attention to Dumont’s career thus far. His world is not a godless one, but one in which God’s presence (in other words, his absence) makes life both mysterious and seemingly unlivable (see especially L’Humanité and Flandres). And Dumont seems to have no contempt for those who try to make sense of the world’s terrors; Céline (who later sloughs off her mortal identity by renaming herself after Hadewijch, the place she claims “where I was born”) is for the most part treated sympathetically by Dumont, even when she seemingly does awful things and when we can’t help but turn against her. Yet he continues toying with us, right up to the film’s final minutes, which upset both the fabric of the film and the perceptions of the viewer; the climax could exist in some fantasy world or in some alternate-reality flashback, or most terribly, in linear conclusion. Highlighting its discordance with the rest of the film, there’s even Mahler suddenly on the soundtrack, the first instance of nondiegetic music. Dumont complicates our relationship to Céline and the film so much that he puts us in the uncomfortable position of having to grant benediction to her.
The inscrutability of the film’s conclusion is matched only by its undeniable power. And it’s so difficult to shake (and in some ways decipher) that we may forget all of the earlier moments in the film that Dumont creates with relatable force and clarity: the alternation of two musical performances, filmed in their near entirety, a dissonant accordion-and-saxophone punkish band anthem at an outdoor show attended by Céline and Yassine, and then a German chamber piece that Céline imbibes in church—both spiritual experiences captured unbroken. And perhaps most memorably there’s a cleansing and terrifying image of intended martyrs praying together in a mosque, to God and Allah at once, male and female, boundaries collapsed. These moments of holy rapture lead to rupture, though. Then the unknowable becomes the unthinkable, and all is lost.