Wednesday, 14 March 2012

FILM REVIEW: Hadewijch



I had previously no plans at all to go and see Hadewijch but it fell at a prime moment during a filmic weekend with a fellow blogster, and I'll take any excuse to go to the Hyde Park Picture House, really (we saw a fabulous performance of the silent classic Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on Friday with live musical accompaniment from Blue Roses on the Friday... marvy). It was a beautiful warm Spring afternoon but instead we chose to go sit in the dark and watch a film about a nutty nun. Two hours later, we realised we should have chosen the park instead. Or stayed at home and watched Heartbeats and eat rocky road.

Hadewijch is a young girl preparing to take her vows as a nun at a rural monastery just outside Paris. But her erratic and increasingly extreme behaviour causes concern for the sisters and Mother Superior, who tell her they think it best she go back into the world. There she resumes her life as Celine, daughter of two wealthy but absent parents who do little to ease her back into the swing of things. Vulnerable and struggling with such a devout faith, she befriends a young Muslim boy named Yessine who in turn struggles with the idea that she doesn't want a boyfriend. He introduces her to his brother Nassir, who is as fanatical as she is but channelled to a different extreme: terrorism. He cuckolds Celine into his world, and she is involved in a bombing in the suburbs of the city by a group of radicals. Returning to the monastery, she is overwhelmed by her feelings and by what she has done, and attempts suicide.

Bruno Dumont's previous films have always dealt with difficult subjects, and the vastness of nature always has a part to play - lurking powerfully in the background. Hadewijch is often seen wandering through the woods (the gateway between the monastery and the outside world), standing in the pouring rain in nothing but a small top and skirt (I have never seen a character more in need of a cardigan) and at the end, walking into an isolated pond in the hope of drowning. This is my first Dumont picture, and whilst I can appreciate wanting to allude to a higher power (he's an ex philosophy professor I'm not surprised to learn) there's only so much abstract and slow pacing I can cope with. Mi God it was slow - I nodded off a few times which is an absolute no-no in a subtitled film, and probably makes my review utterly redundant. But if it's not holding my attention, then where's the good in that? There were so many scenes that were just music pieces which seem to drag on for about seven minutes, luring your eyelids to close.

The film is so slight that when something major does happen halfway through the film - the bombing - it seems to come out of nowhere. Celine and Nassir discuss their faith at length, though mutually not being able to grasp one another's true feelings: Celine is a martyr to her own beliefs, unable to handle the 'responsibility' she feels has been passed onto her, tormented by the feeling that God is always absent and cannot guide her. Celine has no idea what to do with herself, and it's this vulnerability that Nassir exploits: he believes in a God who has shaped in him a political and racial message - and he steers Celine down the wrong path. Amidst all of this talk of loving Him and following Him, you suddenly realise this is a young girl being manipulated into a terrorist bombing, if not being converted to Islam. But the immediate scenes after the explosion dissolve the narrative once again, with Celine returning to the monastery she left at the beginning and trying to kill herself - actions some viewers have suggested actually happen at the beginning of the film, skewing the whole chronology of the film and leaving me even more baffled than I was before.

The film has sparks of interest: her relationship with Yessine, her life at the monastery - but too often these are only nudged upon and is not what the overall film is about. Which is a shame, because with a subject as heavy - and faintly terrifying - as religion, you need some grounding, something to relate to in order to fully grasp the concepts the director is trying to explore. A similar film I watched a couple of years ago, Love Like Poison, about a young Catholic girl preparing for her confirmation but unable to embrace it was able to do this (but without much conclusion, I may add) but Hadewijch was not. It only stapled my thought: religious films freak me out and I'll be avoiding them in the future.

Newcomer Julie Sokolowski (Dumont only ever works with amateurs) is fine - all the performances are fine, but character isn't the driving force here so there's only so much they can do - this is a director's film. Certain to be wowed by many of the big critics (think The Tree of Life) and winner of the International Film Critic's Prize at Toronto (in 2009!), Hadewijch didn't do it for me. It did have the cutest dog though. +1.



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