Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch screens tonight at the New York Film Festival; tickets are still available. The film is currently without distribution.
Any review of Hadewijch, by necessity, is going to undercut the vague, irresistible force of the film’s progress, recalling Cristian Petzold’s metaphysical thriller Yella, say, more than standard narrative logic. To get into the film, you have to accept that you’re going to be offered a bread crumb trail instead of a road map. So, this piece may negatively affect your viewing experience; reader discretion is advised.
French provocateur Bruno Dumont’s purity of intention in Hadewijch, a character study of teenage blueblood Celine (Julie Sokolowski) during a major crisis of faith, is uncanny. At any given moment, it could have taken a sharp, cynical turn towards a pessimistic, canned Tragic Event, but thankfully never does. As she’s asked to leave the titular convent at the beginning of the film, Celine is forced to look for proof of God’s existence in a world where her waifish good looks make her an easy target for less-than-savory types. Thankfully, Dumont takes Celine too seriously to make the film an oddly deadpan satire of an innocents-at-large cautionary tale like Taken, though a crowd of shady banlieu residents look ready to make that perverse impossibility a reality when they lure Celine into the back of a restaurant for a “prayer meeting.” Instead, Dumont sticks to his guns and allows a pervasive sense of impermeable dread to envelop Celine, making her search for answers a seductive mystery.
Over the course of the film, Celine drifts like a wayward top from her lavish home to the streets of Paris, where she forms a tentative bond with Yassine (Yassine Salihine), a humorously hormonal angry young man determined to seduce a girl who uses Christ to cockblock him (he wriggles like mad during when Celine tries to explain to him that she can’t have sex with him because of her faith). Yassine in turn introduces her to his brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), an Islamic community leader who helps Celine cope with her anger and frustration. Sparks fly, as they say.
Though Dumont’s doomed heroine in many ways recalls the soul-sick priest of Ambricourt in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Celine’s turmoil is filmed with a deceptive naturalism closer to Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Often filmed in close-up or static long takes, mostly with natural light, Celine looks every bit an icon of purity, tried by the paradox of looking for God in a place where he seems most absent. Sokolowski’s wrenching performance is similarly more about the bags under her eyes, the invisible burden she literally looks to be carrying on her sagging shoulders, rather than circuitous and impenetrable speeches about her faith. We are, after all, dealing with a child’s logic.
Nevertheless, Celine’s naivete does nothing to diminish her all-too-real pain, not to be confused with Yassine’s horndog angst. She’s the dark side of the “Manic Pixie” archetype, a manic wisp of a girl whose capricious behavior is leaden with clammy, unrelenting anxiety. Sokolowski carries the biggest burden of Dumont’s masterfully foreboding script, leading it places that a lesser actress could not have. She’s the best sign that Dumont knows where he’s going and an excellent hook for this heartfelt exploration of faith.