Hadewijch is the latest film from Bruno Dumont, a former philosophy lecturer whose movies are often compared to the work of Robert Bresson. Dumont doesn’t so much take inspiration from Bresson, as allow the older man’s films to possess his own, so that he might correct their faults. If someone had told me before I went to see Hadewijch that it was ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc meets Mouchette in the age of post-modern simulation’, then I could have imagined the flick in its entirety before I viewed it. That said, the process of attending the screening was nonetheless worthwhile, albeit rather irritating.
It was difficult to get into the Vue in Leicester Square due to a simultaneous premier for a very boring British film set in Twickenham in the early sixties. The crowds and the cops were out in force, and I had to get past some ridiculously heavy security before being allowed anywhere near the multi-screen Vue. Thus after much hassle and finally seated, I realised I hadn’t seen a Dumont flick since his big screen debut, The Life Of Jesus, came out a decade or more before.
Hadewijch is inspired by the writings of a 13 century Flemish mystic of this name, a rich but nonetheless hip chick who liked to eroticise her relationship with ‘God’ and ‘Christ’ by foaming at the mouth until the resulting insanity poured forth from her pen. Hadewijch’s religious pornography took the forms of poetry, letters and written records of visions; and these mystical freak-outs might be likened to free spirit heresies. But while this provided Dumont with his initial inspiration, he sets his film in contemporary France.
The plot of Hadewijch isn’t of much consequence. Celine (Julie Sokolowski) is booted out of a nunnery for being too zealous. She returns to her parent’s opulent apartment. The 20 year-old Jesus freak then hangs out in and around her Parisian home; she meets Yassine (Yassine Salihine), an unemployed teenager from the suburbs who wants to get it one with her, but they never do anything more intimate than embrace. However, in Yassine’s brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis) she recognises a kindred spirit, a fellow religious nut. Nassir tells Celine about Islam and then takes her to Lebanon; when they return to Paris they ‘matyr’ themselves by performing a two person suicide bombing on a metro train. If this were a realist film, then the explosion would be the end of the movie, but Dumont’s speciality is a Baudrillardian simulation of realism, and there is a lose thread to tie-up in the form of a character called David (David Dewaele).
At the beginning of the film, David is a prisoner doing restoration work on the nunnery from which Celine is expelled. He is also framed at various times to look rather like the image of Christ in various Dutch old masters. A succession of scenes indicate that he is a conflation of both Christ and the thieves on the crosses beside the Toad Of Nazareth at the time of ‘The Crucifiction’. I assume Dumont is inviting viewers to recall Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, and even if he isn’t, this is what the depiction of David brought to my mind; in other words, religion is an alienated projection of human attributes into a bogus realm of ‘the sacred’.
After the explosion (i.e. after Celine and Nassir’s implied but not explicitly depicted deaths), Celine and David appear back at the nunnery, but rather than it being winter – as was the case when we first saw them there – it is now spring. Celine attempts to drown herself in a pond but is saved by David. The series of events that take place after the explosion clearly confused much of the audience and became a focus for questions to the director during his Q & A session. I wasn’t feeling engaged enough to point out that the failed drowning rather too self-consciously invokes the climax of Bresson’s Mouchette. My unwillingness to join the discussion stemmed in part from Dumont’s answers exuding the rotten-egg smell of what is sometimes labelled ‘the anxiety of influence’, and this made what he did say so boring that I left before he finished.
Nonetheless, a director like Dumont becomes significant when you see how many of the people attending his screenings don’t understand that film as a medium need not be restricted to utterly flat realist narratives; and is, in any case, better understood as ‘poetic’ images. Quite a few people walked out during the festival screening of Hadewijch I attended. I like the effect Dumont has on audiences considerably more than his movies – which are still too tastefully made to shake up the film world as much as I’d like.
After seeing Hadewijch, I found myself imagining an alternative version in which Celine was a white rasta rather than a catholic, who is loosely modelled on Gale Benson (the daughter of a British Tory politician murdered at Michael X’s black power commune in Trinidad); this would also allow for a heavy dub soundtrack rather than the shit classical music Dumont favoured. Such a venture is not something I can imagine Dumont carrying off successfully – and so, instead, I look forward to him making a Deulezian cross between my two favourite Bresson movies A Man Escaped and Pickpocket. Dumont remains the Jean-Philippe Toussaint of contemporary French language film. Good as far as he goes, but cinema will leave him behind when we force it to go much further….
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!