A compelling insight into the mind of a Christian terrorist, Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch is a hotbed of religious delusion and misplaced fervour.
Diary of A Country Priestess by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It seems every French filmmaker wants to be Bresson. And with its young devout believer and its slow titles shot of a crane lifting crates in a convent courtyard, there’s a spiritual pace and flattened performance to Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch worthy of the great transcendentalist. Constructed around both a major and a minor theme, gradually exposing its protagonist Céline’s almost manic devotion to God and her unlikely vocation into terrorism as well as David, a shady criminal on the story’s margins whose minimal screen time sees him in and out of prison until the grand deus ex machina finale, it’s curiously unbalanced. But what better way to describe the earthly nature of man’s relationship to God?
Hadewijch is a film of geographical spaces, loci which unravel Céline’s state of mind just as much as her thoughts and actions. The film opens amidst scenes of Céline praying in austere rooms and mortifying the flesh, refusing to eat or protect herself from winter’s cold. The would-be novice, feeding the birds from her palms like a saint, is returned to the secular world, expelled by the mother superior for disobedience. Without warning, we’re thrust into the warm opulence of a Parisian summer where sartorial self-punishment no longer seems to raise a well heeled eyebrow. Instead, Céline is reinvented as a disaffected and lonely rich kid. The daughter of a Cabinet minister and a reclusive mother, the neglected theology student Céline makes friends with Yacine, a kid from the banlieues who can’t believe his luck when he’s invited round for tea at their mansion on the Île St Louis. Céline, on the other hand, is worryingly vulnerable, gullibly drawn away to a riverside gig by a band of boys, all in good faith.
There’s something vaguely patronising though about this extrapolated friendship between Céline and Yacine, a political post 9/11 rendition of Disney’s Lady And The Tramp. That said, Dumont is sensitive to the film’s Muslim characters and Yacine’s simple everyday religious devotion is more gratifyingly humble than Céline’s passion for Christ, beautifully conveyed in a scene where Christian and Muslim pray together in their own tongue. But as Céline befriends Yacine’s brother Nassir, a kindred spiritualist who she believes can help her live with God, Paris gives way in an eye-blink to the Lebanon, the central space in Céline’s wayward journey to becoming one of Christ’s soldiers. A wannabe 21st century Joan of Arc who, too wealthy and neglected for normal desires, finds herself blowing up France’s iconic Arc De Triomphe, ready to commit to action to those who fight, so that God may live through us all.
If you scratch Paris’s Muslim surface though, it seems a terrorist bomber pops up in the place of a religious leader. It’s an ugly but necessary plot device in Céline’s increasingly fanatic devotion. And as she completes her journey back to the convent, lost forever from the righteous path, she throws herself into a lake, like a put-upon Mouchette, only for David to step in and save her. With the face of a devil and the eyes of an angel, David Dewaele is perfectly cast as the otherworldly spirit that saves this lost soul. A precursor to his unholy holy man in Hors Satan, he’s like God descended to earth, an observing outsider, terrifyingly indecipherable and somewhere between good and evil.
Named after the 13th century religious fanatic Hadewijch, a wealthy, well-born and well-read female poet who wrote daring secular serenades to God, Hadewijch is more than a Christian devotee’s slide into terrorism. It’s also about a woman’s relationship with God, chastely and yet strangely sexual. For Céline, Christ is her beloved, in a physical relationship where His absence causes her body to ache. She’s a virgin for Him, unable to tolerate anyone but God looking at her. With those eyes. The premise rides on Céline’s fascination with a rural shrine and the archaic notion that a statue of a supine Christ might inspire lusty fervour. Antiquated religious phrasings too of God’s soldiers and brides of Christ are reimagined outside the safety of a church order or medieval mysticism, and these persisting old-fashioned religious values, strikiingly out of kilter with the modern world, suddenly seem more like terrorism and sexual desire.
Reinterpreting the medieval troubadour as a Christian suicide bomber makes for an intriguing interleaving of parables and Dumont excels at everyday tales of extraordinary redemption. Unlike his Cannes winners L’Humanité or Flandres where lives are turned upside down by murder and war, Hadewijch is a continuing journey, with a hero whose love for God deepens and whose sword against injustice sharpens. There are some intriguing details, such as the cross in the shrubbery outside the HLM, a reminder of the predominantly Christian country French Muslims live in. Wet crows, or the glimpse of Nassir and Céline with their backs to the camera and their faces towards a godly landscape, a glimpse into the natural divinity of Hors Satan. Julie Sokolowski is fascinating to watch as the confused believer, part gauche gamine, part glum militant. But its Dumont’s interweaving of ideas which infuses Hadewijch with an emotional resonance. It may not have the soul of Mouchette, but it’s got legs.
Hadewijch is released in the UK on 29th February 2011