Bruno Dumont returns with challenging and provocative take on the links between spirituality and society.
Hadewijch is a film set in the world of modern theology in which a young girl named Céline (non-actor Julie Sokolowski) attempts to reconcile her love of Christ with an Earthly existence which she finds thoroughly unsatisfactory. Her utter devotion to spiritual concerns has led her to self harm and martyrdom, which slowly evolves from hunger strikes and punishing herself by standing out in cold weather to heinous acts that are far more disturbing and violent.
This is arguably Bruno Dumont’s most straightforward and wantonly political work to date, yet he still manages to dramatise and order his material in a way which makes it feel like an implacable spiritual parable in the vein of the great Robert Bresson. Sokolowski is a natural fit for Dumont, her ethereal, vulnerable, glassy-eyed presence elevates his story from simple tale of youthful fixation to a brittle deconstruction of our troubled times.
This is also a very different film for Dumont, as he’s chosen to expunge the splenetic barbarism that coloured much of his early work in favour of monitoring a character whose eternal anguish is born simply through the people she comes into contact with and her own inability to find satisfaction in a world where God remains an invisible presence.
Ignored by her affluent parents (possibly the source of her fervent religiosity?) and disinterested in an Islamic teenager who has taken a shine to her, Céline searches for celestial comfort wherever she can find it, whether in the churning grooves of an outdoor rock band or a string quartet giving a performance in a church. Music is an important aspect of this film: Dumont cunningly juxtaposes it with prayer, as if to demonstrate that it’s very easy to get whisked up in the poetic fervour of a performance, but not so easy to walk away with anything more than an abstract emotional platitude.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Dumont ties Céline’s shift towards fundamentalism with her eventual discovery and acceptance of Islam. Becoming friendly with a local preacher after attending one of his sermons in the back room of a kebab shop, she begins to take note of his violent teachings after becoming convinced that he can bring her closer to her beloved deity.
All the while, a smaller story runs concurrently with Céline’s involving a convict played by David Dewaele who is helping to rebuild a nunnery which she is ejected from at the beginning of the film. Without mentioning exactly how it happens, these separate strands dovetail in spectacularly moving and audacious fashion in the film’s magnificent, Mouchette-quoting (or reversing!) epilogue.
In many ways, Hadewijch can be chalked up as a Dumont best-of: Céline, as the gentle, antisocial loner (her only real friend is her little white dog) of the piece, recalls Emmanuel Schotte’s bumbling, Christ-like police inspector in 1999’s L’humanité; it’s focus on wasted, self-anihilating youth trying to locate a satisfying niche in the world harks back to 1997’s La vie de Jésus and 2006’s Flandres; and David Dewaele even becomes the lead in his superb, 2011 sort-of sequel, Hors Satan, as a mysterious supernatural figure who wanders the costal region of Northern France.
Yet this is also one of his most entirely satisfying pictures, one that refreshingly opts to deal with theology on its own terms, and one which occurs in a world which is at once treacherously strange and strangely beautiful.
Dumont is always worth taking notice of, even if he does tend work his own little patch.
Has Dumont delivered his masterpiece? Well, it sure seems like it.
Challenging, thought provoking and extraordinarily powerful.