Friday, January 20, 2012

"Hadewijch" (2009)

Bruno Dumont finally makes a film which does not involve gratuitous moments---this is remarkable in itself. Yet, in spite of his earnest ending (an ending which anywhere else would have been quite memorable) the buildup, and the fairly ridiculous climax, contrive to downplay the resonance Dumont is clearly after. He is going after the Bressonian, the state of grace which in cinema terms may be called the Bressonian---more specifically, I think, Dumont is attempting to reconfigure, to reinterpret, the inimitable ending of Mouchette---but nothing of the scenario that comes before the ending (an ending that attempts to outline what grace means, for the criminal, for the martyr) sufficiently sets up, or makes way or prepares us for, the religious intensity he is after. One feels Dumont should be congratulated for various things: his sympathy for the Arabic-speaking underclass of Paris, his respect for the masculine ideal such as it is embodied in Muslim culture, and, most importantly, his (newfound?) abstinence from exploiting or punishing the sensibility of his young lead, the cherubic actress, Julie Sokolowski. (In his casting choices, Dumont has consistently demonstrated a great eye for untrained faces.) I was imagining different varieties of abuse in line for the hopeful "martyr"---but Dumont quite surprisingly keeps his film bereft of overly scandalous passages.

I am willing to wager that this aesthetic decision (to avoid or limit the gratuitous) has a lot to do with his recent fascination for the religious imagination, both the Christian and the Islamic varieties, but it also has to do, very likely, with his insertion of two Arab-French male characters (who we learn only from the credits are of Palestinian descent); the two young men, who play brothers, demonstrate an earnest gentlemanly behavior toward the female protagonist, and I think Dumont shows his respect for the culture (of which we can presume he knows only very little, or as much as the common Parisian or Belgian would be suspected of knowing), and also he shows his unwillingness to play into easy ethical binaries (though the climax of the film questionably brings the binary of fundamentalism/liberalism back into play). I myself confess to having imagined a Dumont-style tragedy to strike at the end, involving the French white bricklayer who appears at the beginning of the film (only to mysteriously be escorted by the gendarmie to prison for reasons that are never shown or explained), who is afterwards released 3 months later, and who I feared would attempt some kind of violence involving either Celine (the would-be "martyr") or Yassine and/or Nassir (the two French-Palestinian brothers). Dumont proved me wrong, and I think this shows a kind of mature turn in not only his film philosophy but also in his general outlook on life; a change of scene which took him longer to come to than it had for a very similar director, Carlos Reygadas (a Mexican director who also specializes in the genre of "scandalous epiphany"). In spite of this advancement, the small and quiet beauty of Hadewijch's resolution is unduly sullied by a rather unfortunate, poorly executed climax (involving a Parisian train station and a girl's will to "unite" the extremism of two religious creeds). Hors Satan, if I understand correctly from its synopsis, appears to signal a return to the Dumont of L'Humanite (which would make for an unfortunate regression).