I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet, but there will be a moment when Bruno Dumont is internationally embraced in the same way that Michael Haneke currently is. There are plenty of similarities across their still-unique works. Dumont may ultimately be the inferior filmmaker, but if so it’s only slightly, and perhaps because of his insistence on a very similar narrative form from film-to-film. Still, he’s becoming much more prolific. After starting with 1997’s The Life of Jesus and averaging a film every three years, he now has three releases in a three year span if you include next year’s La Creatice.
Dumont works in a style that is transcendental, uncompromising, bleak and vague. In Hadewijch he follows a young nun of the same name (Julie Sokolowski) who is asked to leave her convent for being too hard on herself – she doesn’t eat or talk. Once outside she interacts quietly with her wealthy parents and meets a Muslim boy Yassine (Yassine Salime) and his fundamentalist brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis). Together they decide to put their extreme beliefs into action.
One of the many interesting things about Hadewijch is how Dumont refuses to judge. This isn’t an easy “religion corrupts” film. There are certainly religious faults in here – the nun who expels Hadewijch is the object of subtle derision once or twice – but more so, this is a study on how different beliefs can interact, on the difference (or similarities) between life in a convent, in a wealthy household, and on the street, and how simple situations can dramatically alter events.
Dumont does not condemn his characters, and perhaps this is what makes this a controversial film. Ultimately Nassir and Hadewijch are terrorists. But by shooting their actions in a solemn wide-shot, by avoiding showing the direct effects of their destruction, and by giving them cause for their actions via a show of criminal acts by the state, the director looks at their terror not as a violent, base act, but instead as an inevitable event in a line of inevitability. He humanizes these terrorists and makes their pain realer than the pain they ultimately inflict. When Hadewijch finds herself in tears after hearing Nassir preach she tells him that she cannot bear how much she loves god. Even when she fails to voice an objection to Yassine’s small bits of criminal rebellion – stealing a motorcycle, causing a traffic accident – we understand her silence not as acceptance of the crime, but rather as simple witness to the inevitable crimes of humanity.
Dumont employs a number of his usual techniques in here, but where, in a film like Humanite (for my money his best) he would move from extreme close-up to wide-shot via one edit, Hadewijch finds him almost entirely in fluid wide-shot, the camera moving slightly with the characters and frequently framing the landscape behind them after they exit frame. One location is constantly at the tail end of a shot – Hadewijch’s former house, a giant mansion on a hill (also named Hadewijch). Dumont composes it at least three times once characters leave frame as though to remind us of the divide between wealth and poverty that makes up the strong undercurrent of the film. Its omnipresence is also notable because this is a place that Hadewijch vocally, and at the behest of Nassir, rejects. Dumont’s insistence on it then becomes like her background haunting her.
There’s something musical about Hadewijch. Literally. Dumont features two musical performances within the film, and the movie ends with non-diegetic music (something very rare in Dumont’s filmography). Hadewijch seems particularly touched by both musical performances – one at a church, the other on the street just after meeting Yassine. The music clearly takes place at key moments in the narrative – her departure from the convent and meeting with the Muslims. That music returns, but without an onscreen source in the final ten minutes – after the terrorist act at the center of the movie – reinforces its importance and its transcendent nature: Hadewijch hears music in the real world at important points in her young life, and “hears” it on the soundtrack (read: everywhere; as the voice of god) after her mission is fulfilled and she has created an act so large so as to fill the void she experiences throughout.
There’s a fourth major character in Hadewijch – a young man who crosses the young nun’s path early-on and is then arrested for a parole violation. David (David Dewaele), is intercut throughout the film, entirely separately from Hadewijch and her experiences. It’s not until the end of the movie, when she returns to the convent and he’s been released from prison that they truly interact. Amidst a rain storm they both find shelter in a greenhouse. Overcome with grief (at her actions? Her return to the convent? Her love of god?) Hadewijch throws herself into a lake, presumable to commit suicide. David suddenly appears and pulls her out. He holds her close and the film ends on his face.
It’s strange that the movie should end on a secondary character’s face. This technique always makes me think of Touch of Evil, when Tanya and Schwartz walk away as Quinlan’s body floats down the river (“He was some kind of a man”). In the Welles film it feels like the appropriate way to end the dystopic story. In Dumont’s it instead elevates a new character and adds to the aforementioned feel of inevitability (predestination). The occasional cuts to David in prison aren’t as much to predict his interaction with Hadewijch, but rather his action with her: David will do something, he will act in the same way that Nassir and Hadewijch do. Dumont judges neither action, though one is life-affirming, and one life-taking.