Like The Sound of Music without the music, Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch opens in a present-day convent, where the eponymous young novitiate—a girl of about 20—has run afoul of the mothers superior. She confuses abstinence with martyrdom, they say, as evidenced by her acts of starvation and self-mortification. And she has taken the idea of becoming a “bride of Jesus” altogether too literally. How do you solve a problem like Hadewijch? By returning her to secular society, the sisters agree, in the hope that she may find her “true self.”
Dumont’s typically uncompromising fifth feature—in part, a continuation of his career-encompassing study in the origins and varieties of human violence—follows Hadewijch on her journey beyond the convent walls, from the Left Bank of Paris to the West Bank and back again, as she becomes radicalized in her search for divine grace. Like her namesake, the 13th century Flemish mystic and poetess who wrote at length about her own sublimated love for the Almighty, Dumont’s Hadewijch, whose actual name is Céline (played by newcomer Julie Sokolowski), hails from an affluent family, the daughter of a government minister with a richly appointed apartment on the Île Saint-Louis. Thus, for the first time in his films, Dumont trades his beloved Bailleul for the City of Lights, which he shoots ravishingly (albeit not in his customary widescreen), rarely more so than when Céline catches a ride on the back of a stolen motorcycle with Yacine, the Arab youth she meets in a neighborhood café. Yacine steals the bike as payback for what he perceives as a disapproving glance from its proper owner—a moment that calls to mind the casual humiliation of the young Arab man in Dumont’s debut feature, La vie de Jésus (1997), here rendered in similarly sharp relief.
Although Yacine clearly has eyes for Céline, she rebuffs his advances, claims she’s saving herself for you know who. Still, in Dumont’s interpolation of Stanley Kramer, Céline invites her new friend over for dinner, to the obvious discomfort of her distant, withdrawn mother and the complete obliviousness of her father, who makes patronizing small talk about job prospects with the unemployed Yacine. In Act 2 of this cross-cultural exchange, Yacine introduces Céline to his older brother, Nassir, who invites her to join his Islam-centric religious discussion group—current topic of discussion: the significance of “the invisible.” “You must act if you have faith. You must continue the Creator’s work,” Nassir advises. And with that, Céline/Hadewijch begins her transformation into a full-fledged soldier in the army of God.
Dumont’s film arrives on the heels of a series of movies devoted, in part or in whole, to the subject of armed religious fanaticism, including Paradise Now (2005), The Hurt Locker, (2008) and Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night (2006) (to which it could almost be considered a prequel). But where those films have all been, elementally, procedurals—how-tos in bomb making and prevention—Dumont aspires to make the audience share in Hadewijch’s awakening; to make us feel physically, spiritually something that we may not at all agree with, or even entirely comprehend; in short, to make the invisible, if not exactly visible, then at least tangible. Dumont is working closely here to the Dreyer of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and the Bresson of Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951) and, like them, he has cast a lead performer of an almost metaphysical intensity, who has a face fit for Medieval painting and who seems to experience sensations and emotions more acutely than other people. Her acting, like Hadewijch’s faith, seems to spring from some deep inner recess that few have the ability to access. The latest in Dumont’s gallery of neo-religious icons—which also includes the epileptic gang member of La vie de Jésus, the forlorn detective Pharaon De Winter of L’humanité (1999) and the hulking, soft-spoken soldier Demester of Flanders (2006)—she is the first to be presented in a distinctly religious context.
Although Hadewijch travels with Nassir to Palestine (or somewhere where bombs rain down from the skies—as in Flanders, the particular war zone is never named), it would as grossly reductive to view Dumont’s intentions through such a narrow political prism; some will no doubt suggest Dumont himself is being by conflating Islamic fundamentalism with Catholic theology. Originally a philosophy professor by trade and still very much one at heart, Dumont and his expansive interest in human barbarism know no temporal or geographical boundaries. Indeed, time and again he reminds us that we are all, in so many ways, still cave people warming by the fire. In this respect, Hadewijch will make few new converts to Dumont’s oeuvre, despite the filmmaker’s repeatedly stated desire to broaden his audience.
On some fundamental level, Dumont is probably too insular and idiosyncratic a director to ever command a large public, even the arthouse hoi polloi—a filmmaking autodidact who, despite his two Grand Jury Prizes at Cannes, remains very much an outsider figure even in his own national cinema, committed to filming people and places far removed from the fashionable circles of bourgeois Paris and, despite his reputation for extreme and controversial content, unfailingly sincere in his efforts to parse the moral complexities of the human soul. When Dumont provokes, it is not to get an easy rise out of the audience, but to bring us closer to some shared understanding. And if Hadewijch isn’t one for the multiplexes, Dumont does seem to have seized on a new economy of means here, in the speed and precision with which he moves through the visual and narrative space of the film, and in his willingness to break from old habits that might have begun to verge on the self-parodic. (Among its other novelties, this is the first of Dumont’s films lacking in a single episode of violent, animalistic fucking.)
The movie ends with a bang—or seems to—after which Hadewijch returns us to the convent for what at first feels like a flashback, and then like a dream (both of which would also be Dumont firsts), and which, even taken literally, ranks among the most haunting and profoundly beautiful sequences in all of Dumont’s work. It is a sequence that begins with an act of penance and builds to the long-delayed meeting between Hadewijch and a grubby-faced construction worker (Henri Cretel, who was the cuckolding friend in Flanders) labouring on the convent grounds. Like so much in Hadewijch, what happens between them can be seen as something entirely of this world or as an act of divine intervention. Either way, it reaffirms that Dumont himself is a cause very much worth believing in.