(Bruno Dumont, France, 2010)
A surprising turn for Dumont, in the sense that it at least feels more subtle, tender, and even-tempered than his previous films. For all the heartfelt sincerity of his work, he has been at least equally interested in provoking his audience, daring us to look away, to reject his seriousness. This double-edged sword is what fascinates me about Dumont - his moral gravity is inspiring, especially in light of frequently oblique and skeptical attitudes among artists in all mediums, but he has an undeniable streak of the bad-boy artiste that seems deliberately repellent.
So I'm not sure how I feel about this latest, mild-mannered version of Dumont. I like that he's being totally upfront about investigating the varieties of religious experience, from the vicious to the sublime, but I found myself only half-invested for much of the movie. It opens magnificently; Julie Sokolokowsi is fantastic from the first frame, and the early scenes in and out of the convent work especially well. But once we are introduced to Yassir's brother, who is swiftly revealed as a jihad-wager, things become overly schematic. Celine's "conversion" from gentle-if-overly-ardent novice to willing terrorist is done at the drop of a hat, seemingly, and it doesn't convince. The subtext is clear enough - we overhear, in Celine/Hadewijch's prayers, remarks on God's love being "violent," and other ruminations on the ambiguity of faith. Dumont is concerned with the mercurial nature of religion, in which a philosophy of love can so easily degenerate into a monstrous doctrine of hatred, and Celine/Hadewijch is his test case. But in refusing to delve into the messy and (and mostly passe) world of psychological realism, he leaves the audience no way to access Celine's inner life. In Bresson (an obvious touchstone of Dumont's), who was ever rigorous in his minimalism, this wasn't much of an issue. I actually like that Dumont lets his characters appear more tangibly human - for me, paving this middle path between Bressonian minimalism and more traditional storytelling was one of the things that made his first two features so exciting. Hadewijch shows even more progress toward the dramatic, but in too many instances, the director seems to hesitate. It's as if he wants us to empathize with Celine, but also consider her as a metaphysical idea - an avatar of pure religious devotion. Unfortunately, these two impulses don't easily coexist, at least not in this film. We either encounter her as a poorly-written dramatic "character" or as an amorphous religious conceit. Clearly, Dumont is interested in illustrating her humanity - why else would he cast a girl who is so naturally talented at being on camera? Unlike some of his previous protagonists - Pharoan in l'Humanite, or the menacing lug in Flanders, who were cut from similar cloth to Bresson's impassive and statuesque "subjects," Celine is delightfully alive. She's quiet but intense, vulnerable yet strong, a fairly typical teenage girl (which is to say, complexly immature) who just happens to prefer Jesus to other boys. So when we see her recede from rationality into full-blown fanaticism, it doesn't wash. To be fair, the challenge Dumont tackled is a massive one - how do you depict the appeal of fanaticism? How does one persuasively argue for acts of violence that will harm the innocent? Of course, we're all capable of imagining the conditions that produce many terrorists - poverty, repression, lack of education, violence - but Dumont makes it abundantly clear that he isn't interested in sociological explanations. Celine has everything - she's the daughter of a wealthy and powerful man - and she still decides to become a killer. The point is pretty clear - the origins of evil are deep, mysterious, and intermingled with the origins of love. They might even be the same thing. That's a subtle and fascinating idea, but Dumont doesn't effectively dramatize it. He instead reverts to his native minimalism, preventing Celine's character from developing, while the audience is left cold.
It's still the case that nobody casts non-actors like Dumont, and that nobody can spot a compelling face like Dumont; but compelling faces alone can't carry a film. This latest work shows an increased emphasis on straightforward storytelling, a form that Dumont isn't entirely comfortable with - at least not yet. It's hard to tell if Hadewijch is a spiritual film infused with secular skepticism, or a secular film with spiritual yearnings. Either way, the inherent tension is fitful at best. I will admit to being pleasantly surprised by the final action of the film, although it didn't resonate the way Dumont's previous conclusions tended to - it's a nice, effective set piece that casts the preceding events in the glow of a religious parable, but it can't make up for the film's shortcomings. Overall, Hadewijch is worth seeing, but it doesn't match the unsettling power achieved by some Dumont's previous efforts.