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Peter T Chattaway

Hadewijch (2009)

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Justin Chang @ Variety:

Bruno Dumont, one of French cinema�s reigning pessimists, suspends his punishing view of mankind � at least momentarily � with �Hadewijch,� an austere, deeply questioning examination of a devout young woman having an intense crisis of faith. Less harsh and forbidding than the auteur�s recent work, yet played with the same deadly seriousness, the film is exquisitely molded, dramatically parched and entirely sincere, perhaps to a fault, while its engagement with both Christianity and Islam supplies a rich, potentially divisive talking point for fall festgoers. Dumont�s followers will need no exhortation to climb aboard, but new arthouse converts look unlikely.

�Hadewijch� takes its name from a 13th-century Christian mystic who, in her writings, extolled the adoration of God over worldly, romantic love. Dumont has conceived his protagonist, Celine (newcomer Julie Sokolowski), as a latter-day Hadewijch � a 20-year-old theological student whose commitment to Christ is so extreme that she�s cast out of her convent by an alarmed Mother Superior, who urges her to find her calling in the outside world.

Viewers hoping that Celine�s calling might involve singing moppets and lederhosen have probably never seen a Dumont film before. Yet mercifully, �Hadewijch� mostly rejects the repellent man-as-bestial-predator worldview that suffocated �Flanders� and �Twentynine Palms,� allowing for a more nuanced, intelligent view of human thought, behavior and spirituality that�s borderline generous by the helmer�s standards. . . .

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Dumont is an odd duck. For someone who has been criticized a great deal for a lot of very matter-of-fact sexual imagery in his films, I can think of no other working director that has so consistently wondered about spirituality, and more specifically Christian spirituality, than any other working director. Dumont's festival to art-house lag is pretty long, but I look forward to seeing this.

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I'll write more on this tomorrow, but a few, quick thoughts.

First, Tyler, from his post at An Education:

Why do movies have to give up just when they could really be interesting and original?

And that very much sums up my feelings about Hadewijch, of which the first 55-60% I was certain I was seeing a masterpiece. In fact, I still think that portion of the film is at least masterful.

...mercifully, Hadewijch mostly rejects the repellent man-as-bestial-predator worldview that suffocated Flanders and Twentynine Palms, allowing for a more nuanced, intelligent view of human thought, behavior and spirituality that's borderline generous by the helmer's standards. . .

Having only seen Twentynine Palms, I fully agree with that. Up until the nosedive, for sure. And again at the end when he tries to redeem himself. But it's too little, too late.

But, still, it is very generous, in several places, compared to Twentynine Palms.

Our old friend Aquarello is also being generous, I think. At least a lot more generous than what I think that I'm thinking:

Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch departs from his familiar aesthetic of landscapes as abstract manifestations of internal states to create a spare and intimate, yet equally provocative exploration of absolute faith, martyrdom, and God's silence. From the opening shot of an ascetic postulant, Céline (Julie Sokolowski) making her way across the woods to visit a Pietà at a nearby church, Dumont channels Robert Bresson's cinema, suggesting an updated version of the frail country priest in Diary of a Country Priest walking to his new parish. Sent back to live in the "real world" after disobeying the Mother Superior's entreaties that she end her self-imposed mortification, Céline's reality proves to be far from the terrestrial grounding that the nuns had in mind, returning to a comfortable, if aimless bourgeois life as the daughter of a cabinet minister. Befriending a young man from the banlieue, Yassine (Yassine Salim), Céline becomes increasingly drawn to his older brother, an imam named Nassir (Karl Sarafdis) whose theological discussions on the Koran mirror her own unrequited quest - a connection that would lead her further into spiritual darkness. In its portrait of disaffected youth in the aftermath of traumatic history, Hadewijch converges towards The Devil, Probably, where revolution is borne of uncertainty and displaced passion. However, inasmuch as Dumont invokes the spirit of Bresson throughout the film, the concluding shot of Céline by the river proves to be a subversion of the iconic sequence from Mouchette, achieving transcendence, not from immolation, but from salvation.

I'm going to mull this one over for a day and see if my thoughts change, but honestly this may be the first time that I'm the guy that can't be happy where it went, because it should've gone somewhere else. (This is something I have complained about before regarding dialogue even around here, but in this instance I was so in love with what I was seeing, that I just can't help but say, "Why, Bruno? Why?")

Edited by Persona

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I'll probably veer into some SPOILERS here.

I'm with you, Stef. I liked so much of Hadewijch, but my initial enthusiasm faded the more I thought about it. When I stepped into the lobby afterward, I ran into a Muslim friend who was really upset with the film -- I mean, almost on the verge of tears. He's the most rabid cinephile I've ever met and a devoted fan of Dumont, and he was crushed by the last act of the film. Of course, Islamic extremism is an important subject for artists today, so I don't mean to argue that the plot turn is in any way out-of-bounds, but it felt so calculated. At my least charitable, I think the film is downright racist -- as the Christian white girl gets to be redeemed (whatever that means in the context of Dumont's worldview) and the brown Muslim blows himself up, taking innocent people with him.

Dumont has said he became fascinated by the sensuality of Hadewijch of Antwerp's writings, by the almost carnal pleasure she took in her contact with the body of Christ. He also claims to believe strongly in grace and in the holy, without believing in God. The film -- well, all of his films, really -- certainly displays his admirable and genuine curiosity about the world-changing power of faith and the mysteries of grace, but he's so deeply ambivalent. Hadewijch is chock full of allusions to spiritual cinema -- I especially like the closeup of Celine in the greenhouse at the very end, which is Dumont's take on Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc -- as if he's trying to understand why he's so deeply moved those films, despite his own lack of faith. He understands images of faith better than faith itself, which is why, I think, Celine ends up being such a fractured character. She's totally driven by guilt and by the horrors she sees around her, she's frantically desperate for grace (and for a hug from her F/father), but, frankly, she's also a bit of a sociopath (maybe not precisely the right word).

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With all the getting-out-of-town for Easter and friends and, yes, even church and all that, I wasn't able to properly think through or write anything about Hadewijch. And I've been on trains across the midwest and have had a full day's work on about two hours of sleep. So I'm going to go lay down and watch something (and probably fall asleep), but I wanted to write something down tonight or I know I'll never get back to it...

I really loved and admired the character of Celine, and don't believe that this character would've gone where Dumont had her go. Not without something more in the background to show us why. Was she a little daffy about her love for Jesus? Yes. Was her head a bit in the clouds? Without a doubt. Is she a bit comparable to Bess in Breaking the Waves? Well, yes and no. Yes because she is sincere, and flighty, and pure and is headed for some kind of certain destruction. But no, because she never made up the voice of God talking back to her (like Bess did).

I've met ladies like this, and much as they give me the Jesus Creeps, I can't help but loving them. Because there's something beautiful about a person that is filled with faith, even over-the-top faith, the kind of faith that sees an accident on the side of the road on their ride home from work and prays over the people involved in the crash. Somehow this reminds me of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, too, in that we see her as this strong, central character, willing to be martyred, to be burned for her beliefs. But it's easy to see the strong part of Joan and forget that one of the things we really admire is this person who is only strong because she is weak, and in that weakness willing to lean on God for her strength.

I loved Celine. How she longs for God, prays to him with her hands folded, sincere reflections from her heart, willing to go to great lengths to know him better. I can't see how she ends up involved in the crime she ends up in (and I also can't see how she didn't end up dead as a part of that crime, this is something else the director leaves out). We need more, something in her background, another kind of slant other than wanting something other than a God of invisibility and finding her answers in an Islamic sermon about a God of action.

And falling in love with Celine and her pretty eyes and beautifully spritual nature, and then seeing her involved in the "action" she is involved in -- without justification in her nature or an explanation in her background -- just didn't hold water. And throwing in words like "fundementalism" doesn't help, because she wasn't really a fundamentalist until she ran into the Islamic faction. (In other words, the theme "fundamentalism in any form is extreme and therefore dangerous and bad" doesn't work for me because I wouldn't have called her a fundamentalist Christian at all.)

I just wanted to see something either wonderful or miraculous, or profoundly moving or at the very least, that which would give me a memory of the wonder of her spiritual nature... In fact, at one point we came very close: Is it just me, or did she experience a transfiguration? Was I the only one that noticed that? But she was only transfigured to be transposed into an alternate religious setting, where I now feel like the writer/director is trying to show me the two settings' similarities and why they are both extreme, and bad, and that's not where this character should have gone. Maybe the fact that he likes the images from those old films but doesn't really understand them plays into why it doesn't work in his own film.

Anyway, those are just a few thoughts about what's been bugging me in regard to Hadewijch. Such wonderful film settings though, a couple of those shots had to have been ripped straight our of classical painting. Especially the shots in the church garden and in her parents' home. Lush, beautiful images that won't be easily forgotten, much as I'm upset with Dumont about Celine.

Edited by Persona

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It's been said that the film can be read as anti-Islamic. It can also be read as pro-criminal.

She gets away with her criminal action and receives forgiveness. A criminal is her savior in the end.

I don't read it as either, for the record. It's best looked at like a search engine. You can enter any stream-of-conscious religious desire, and out pops information -- maybe good info, maybe bad.

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I had forgotten about the scene with the small rock band and the accordion player. That scene, and that band, were pure magic.

Frustrating as the film is to deal with, no doubt I'll give it another try, if anything to see that scene again.

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I'll have to write more on this later as I'm able to process it. But this film is really quite incredible. I'm not completely sure that I followed Celine's progression (theological or intellectual), but there seemed to be a rhyme and reason to it even though she is by no means very rational. She loves God and she is seeking God with everything that she has. This shocks, impresses, and threatens those around her. Her questions and her thoughts about the presence and absence of God are not too far removed from those of many an Ingmar Bergman character. The patience that Dumont takes in allowing us to just settle down with the character in stillness is not far removed from many a Robert Bresson scene.

Her faith is both strong and unyielding, and subject to both manipulation and theological error. The help that she needs is absent. And yet, there's still something powerful about the collection of questions and conclusions you have once the film is over with.

Also, there are not too many films over the last couple years that could beat this one just in terms of sheer constant beauty.

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Disappearing from Netflix after this weekend. My first venture into Dumont, although there is something familiar about the severity of his visual style, recalling the chilly mastery of Haneke, Breillat, and, south of the equator, Reygadas. I'm not sure that Dumont is the right guide for this territory (there is something "not quite right" about the ease with which his protagonist accepts violence as the only way of uniting herself with God), although the calm yet rigorous flow of imagery speaks eloquently for itself. The film is disturbing not only for the way a shared sense of spirituality leads inexorably to violence, but for the way it links a longing for God with repressed physical desire. Darren's incisive comment about Dumont understanding images of faith rather than faith itself also describes the fascinating tension at work in films like Silent Light

 

At my least charitable, I think the film is downright racist -- as the Christian white girl gets to be redeemed (whatever that means in the context of Dumont's worldview) and the brown Muslim blows himself up, taking innocent people with him.

 

I thought this was rather courageous of Dumont, actually. The film depicts, with a fair amount of accuracy and even sympathy, a certain kind of believer. Nassir is a jihadi, and the realization that Islamic fundamentalists occasionally commit acts of terror (e.g. murder-suicides on underground railways) is part of realism, and a test for anyone who claims to have a sense of reality. Even though we do not particularly want Muslim terrorists to exist, they do.

Edited by Nathaniel

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Nathaniel wrote:
: Disappearing from Netflix after this weekend.

 

Oh, crap. I've got so much stuff backlogged already... including several online screeners that expire this weekend... sigh.

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Disappearing from Netflix after this weekend.

So, yes, if you have not seen the film, it is worth taking the time to see it. As far as meditative and beautiful films go, this one has some hallowed moments. And it asks some questions that no other film is going to ask you as clearly and as directly as this one.

 

I'm not sure that Dumont is the right guide for this territory (there is something "not quite right" about the ease with which his protagonist accepts violence as the only way of uniting herself with God), although the calm yet rigorous flow of imagery speaks eloquently for itself. The film is disturbing not only for the way a shared sense of spirituality leads inexorably to violence, but for the way it links a longing for God with repressed physical desire.

"Not quite right" is right. But then I'm not sure this is a problem with Dumont, given how often religious faith does lead to violence in real life. Having had more time to think on this film, it represents for me now an illustration of how easily innocence and the pure fervor of belief can be manipulated by the wrong people. There is a kind of faith that is so open, so innocent and so trusting that it will allow itself to be guided anywhere. This is a kind of faith that is easily mocked. It is a faith I've seen in real life in some people (who I have pridefully considered to be unsophisticated) that is very tempting to attack or criticize.

I'd much prefer someone's faith to be based on some evidence, to be tied with some reason to be guided by some kind of good and established authority. But not all faith is, and this is a film that shows both how that can be good, beautiful and very very dangerous. In a day and age where there are some idealistic young people being recruited by ISIS, the potential darkness in this film feels even more real. There is a sense in which Hadewijch is taken in, guided, molded, shown evils perpetuated by the West and has her moral sense appealed to. She is looking for God and asking deep felt questions, and here there is only one place where anyone even bothers to answer her. I don't think this is unrealistic. This is scary, but it also should motivate a discussion about what else is needed in personal religious life rather than mere pure faith alone.

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