Review by Mike D’Angelo
Posted on 13 September 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
Reporting from Cannes in 2006, I began my review of Flanders with two sentences that friends and colleagues have been quoting (and often lightly mocking) ever since: “This is a film by Bruno Dumont. I do not like films by Bruno Dumont.” The simplistic, Sam-I-Am cadence was partly a joke (I think the previous review had been a tad abstruse), but it was also intended to convey the gut level on which I’ve always found Dumont’s work repellent. From a strictly formal standpoint, the guy has few peers, but for me his visual mastery has always been poisoned by his thoroughly noxious worldview, in which any intimation of beauty or grace will inevitably turn out to be a prelude to bestial cruelty. And so it’s an understatement to say that I was unprepared for the troubling loveliness of Dumont’s latest film, Hadewijch, about a young woman’s genuinely sincere crisis of faith – a faith that Dumont, incredibly, doesn’t feel compelled to gang-rape out of her.
Not that there isn’t reason to be concerned, mind you. Indeed, the movie isn’t more than ten minutes old before its protagonist, Céline, has been kindly but firmly bounced from a convent by the head nun after taking abstinence and mortification to worrisome extremes. Instructed to find her calling out in “the world,” Céline returns to the palatial estate of her fabulously wealthy parents, which makes it immediately clear what she’s working so hard to renounce. Still passionately committed to God but remarkably open to experience, she forms a tentative friendship with a young Arab man, Yassine, who unsuccessfully hits on her in a café. But it’s Yassine’s older brother, Nassir - a devout Muslim who leads a regular prayer meeting - with whom she ultimately forms a more meaningful and potentially alarming relationship.
With the notable exception of the bickering couple in Twentynine Palms - itself something of an anomaly in his oeuvre, though he reverts to sickening form in its final few minutes - Dumont’s protagonists tend to be almost Neanderthal in appearance and behavior, the better to suggest the animal within. Céline, by contrast, moves between soul-searing anguish and a weirdly beatific acceptance, and newcomer Julie Sokolowski gives her an air of genuine mystery that proves crucial when the story swerves in a direction some may find ludicrous, offensive or both. I have my own reservations, to be honest, but this is the first Dumont movie in which it’s even possible to ascribe a shocking turn of events to the mindset of an honest-to-goodness character, and it was such a relief not to feel as if nihilistic i’s and t’s were being dotted and crossed that I found myself surprisingly receptive to the film’s more outré fillips.
Plus, it’s not entirely clear what actually happens in Hadewijch, or even to what or whom the title refers. (Céline tells Nassir it’s the name of her family’s estate, but the closing credits identify Solikowski as playing Hadewijch, not Céline, and Dumont took the name from a real-life poet and mystic who lived in the 13th century.) I’ve read at least three different interpretations of the film’s perplexing coda, which makes no logical sense unless you conclude either (a) that it precedes certain other events chronologically (my initial assumption), or (b) that certain other events weren’t real. Dumont even seems in a playful mood vis-á-vis his reputation, introducing one of his standard slope-browed, brutish males early on and then repeatedly cutting to that apparently irrelevant character’s misadventures in and out of jail, encouraging the audience to steel ourselves for the inevitable nightmare we’ve come to expect from un film de Bruno. Instead - assuming in particular that option (a) above is correct, which is still my working hypothesis - he offers up the loveliest sick joke imaginable. In any case, this is a film by Bruno Dumont. I sometimes like films by Bruno Dumont.
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