by Yasmeen Khan

Before 2009’s Hadewijch, Bruno Dumont made three exceptional feature films – La Vie de Jésus (1997), L’Humanité (1999) and Flandres (2006) -and one terrible turkey – Twentynine Palms (2003), not to be confused with 29 Palms (2002), which is also the only one to be set outside France. So it’s encouraging to see him return there for Hadewijch. His style suits contemporary French cinéma du corps much better than it does the Californian thriller. Dumont’s films are bleak and powerful explorations of personalities in crisis, set against the barest outlines of plot, naturalistic, drawn on drab streets or brutally beautiful landscapes, concerned with extremes of emotion, with setting and atmosphere rather than narrative.

Hadewijch’s narrative, such as it is, is the story of a young Catholic girl undergoing a religious crisis. She’s a novice nun, but she takes her religion to extremes, starving and mortifying herself; and the elderly nuns at her convent are disturbed and concerned by her overly zealous behaviour. They diagnose her as misguided, self-absorbed and dangerous, and send her back to her evidently very wealthy family. She attempts to cope with the transition by getting involved with a boy who approaches her in a bar, a Muslim boy from a very different social background. It’s a familiar theme in modern French cinema – the traditional drama of class difference augmented by newer cultural and religious clashes.

Julie Sokolowski plays Hadewijch with extreme reserve; her pale, unformed, blank face gives nothing away, whether she is doing something ostensibly fun like dancing, or listening to moving music, or doing a boring chore, or standing outside in the winter rain in an act of devotion, or scared. Only in the depths of religious uncertainty does she outwardly display emotion. That’s not to say there’s no depth in her performance, not at all, but it does sum up one of the main characteristics of Dumont’s storytelling. That is, the surface patina of the banal that’s laid across these extremes of experience. When there are conversations, they’re banal and stilted, even when they’re attempts to talk about serious subjects. People never seem to really connect when they talk; there’s no eye contact, the conversations are disjointed, even when there’s genuine concern on the part of at least one of them. Hadewijch’s relationship with Yassine (Yassine Salime), the Muslim boy, is the thinnest of threads, yet it proves resilient to their differences and miscommunications.

It’s a way of portraying relationships that seems implausible. Given what we’re shown, the fact of a developing connection between them is inexplicable, but it’s there, so we have to accept it. And isn’t that often the way people actually behave – saying something one time and contradicting themselves later, feeling one thing yet behaving in a completely contradictory way? The round blankness of Celine’s face makes it harder and easier to accept this kind of storytelling: we can’t read many specific emotions on her, but we can impose what we want on the surface, especially given the extreme looseness & slightness of the plot.

The plot, essentially, is that Hadewijch is looking for God, or rather, God’s love. She doesn’t want human love. She rejects her parents’ (paltry) attempts at affection and Yassine’s initially creepy but gradually evidently sincere offers. She sees herself in the classic nun’s role, married to Christ, forbidden to find love in the world, choosing and chosen by the transcendent, not the earthly. But the selfishness and inappropriateness of this interpretation is clear from the nun’s speech at the start, and clear to us in the things Celine encounters and discovers. It’s a tension that isn’t going to go away, like the tension between the characters’ discussions of God in absolute, abstract terms and the political realities of the world they find themselves in. Hadewijch’s devotion is something that she wants to shape her whole life with, despite conflicting feelings. Why this should be is perhaps the central question of the film. How destructive is faith, to the world and to the soul, when faith relies on suffering, or when it’s thought to? Suffering for lack of love is Hadewijch’s choice and not her choice. She externalises a need that comes from within her for love, putting the responsibility on God. Is religion just creating love for oneself and calling it God’s love? Is God to be found in nature?

Bruno Dumont’s films are seen as part of a trend in French cinema of embracing certain kinds of extremism in storytelling. He’s listed along with the likes of Noé, Breillat, Denis, and Ozon to an extent. stuff in common, although the films also have much in common with the films of eg Cantet, Audiard, or the (Belgian, actually) Dardennes. They embody a style of social realism that comes heavily laced with fantasy, in a way descended from cinéma vérité The mysticism that runs through Hadewijch – the discussions about God, the silences, the music, the worship – although it may be very real for many people, there’s a qualitative difference between this stuff and grim kitchen sink drama. It’s a good thing. It means that films can explore these tensions in life, the collision between the real and the spiritual.

La vie de Jésus explored a troubled young boy’s sexual and emotional crises; L’humanité those of an older man, a detective dealing with a traumatising case. Flandres describes a man whose inability to show emotion causes his life to fall apart. There are common themes; these films describe tormented souls caught in extremes of emotion, often also in extreme violence. Hadewijch shares some of these concerns, but the physical crises are sublimated and conflated with the emotional. It’s more ambitious, and yet humbler. Look at the grandness of the earlier films’ titles, compared to the cryptic Hadewijch.< It is not necessarily a maturing, because Dumont has been an assured talent from the start of his career; rather it’s another step along a path of simplification, sublimation of ideas.

Hadewijch is on release in London’s West End.

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