13 February 2012

HADEWIJCH (Dir. Bruno Dumont, 2009, France)

Dumont’s protagonists are ciphers; challenging, closed, unemotive are just a few of the characteristics that come to mind when trying to describe them. The young Parisian girl Celine (Julie Sokolowski) is one of those ciphers at the heart of Dumont’s 2009 film Hadewijch. Like much of Dumont’s work, which has bypassed me, I was alerted to this film by Jonathan Romney’s embracing review in the latest issue of Sight and Sound. Hadewijch is a brave, risky and astounding work as it takes on issues such as faith, fanaticism and terrorism that are either too problematic for an adequate cinematic treatment or fraught with wider cultural animosities.

Here are some initial thoughts on the film:

1. Dumont’s strength as a filmmaker lies in his precise control over the pace of the film. Although it is a slow film, I don’t want to label it as part of slow cinema because this would not only mean unfairly categorising Dumont’s style but also dismissing his exacting control over pacing as somewhat part of a wider cinematic trend. Dumont has only made four films to date and critics have been quick to draw comparisons with Robert Bresson. In a way, such an authorial comparison seems somewhat justified when considering Bresson’s power as a filmmaker lay in the economy of his shots. The notion of shot economy could easily be applied to Hadewijch as every shot in the film feels natural to the subject matter - nothing appears wasted or contrived in anyway. Admittedly, what joins Dumont to his contemporaries like The Dardenne Brothers is that the elliptical nature of their narratives produces ambiguity which is essential for a convincing reality.

2. Dumont’s treatment of faith is unique for its encompassing view. Celine, the young Parisian girl who has been asked by the Nuns at the order to reconnect with the outside world, finds a potential answer to her blinding faith in Islam and the Arab male. Celine’s initial meeting with a group of Arab youth raised certain expectations - I thought it would be a steady case of sexual corruption by the Arab male but Dumont deliberately complicates the interaction between Celine and the Arab men by suggesting that both groups could be viewed as the Other in the eyes of a secular society. The fanaticism which Celine holds for her love of Christ is mirrored in that of Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), an educated and articulate Muslim, who contextualises his resentment against white European power and the establishment by taking Celine on an eye opening journey to the Middle East. By deciding to deal with the question of faith, Dumont takes an inclusive approach of fanaticism and thus avoids the trap of demonising Islam. The radical conclusion Dumont makes is that by bridging the social void between the Parisian wealthy elite and the deprived banlieues through an apolitical Celine, the film represents fanaticism as non judgemental and devoid of the typical discriminatory labels. In a way, Dumont asks a very difficult question - is it right to interpret blind faith as simply extremism? 

3. Hadewijch is a deeply religious film. Even the peripheral characters including that of David (David Dewaele), an ex-prisoner with a saintly look in his eyes, who works in the gardens of the convent is one who will figure in the scheme of things. It is David who is more of a cipher than anyone of the characters we come across in the film that becomes the salvation of Celine. On the most basic level, David is a symbol of providence and his decisive intervention at the end points to a strategic narrative role that could also be linked to a wider metaphysical idea of interconnecting lives. This connection between David and Celine renders true Nassir’s Islamic proposition that what is invisible and absent in life can only be made visible through a consistency in terms of faith. David is part of the invisible but he is rendered visible in his act of compassion at the end. This seems to prove an ideological certainty; clarity in terms of faith can only be achieved through a complete rejection of worldly pleasures.

4. It would be wrong to label Celine a terrorist especially considering Dumont’s decision to use ellipsis to represent the bombing that takes place in Paris. I know some critics have referred to Celine as a terrorist but to take up such a position smacks of a besieged mentality that religious extremism is the likely cause and outcome of such strong faith. Dumont is wise to leave open the question of the bombing, refusing to tell us if Celine or Nassir were involved. None of this is explained to us. It might seem easy to conclude that Celine’s suicide attempt at the end is a direct result of her involvement in the bombing but this yet again is left open ended as it could also be as a consequence of the extreme emotions produced by her fanaticism.

5. Is Dumont the heir to Bresson? He might just be.


  1. Great entry, as always, Omar. BTW, could you email me on filmstudiesff[at]gmail[dot]com, please. I want to send you an invitation to participate in a film project and can't find your email. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your kind words Catherine!