Bruno Dumont is a French director whose films are inspired by his fellow compatriot Robert Bresson and background in industrial documentary making. His singular films are stripped back and emotionally raw, using non–professional actors to convey a sense of authenticity. They deal in the primal urges of human beings and are constantly gazing up at some higher power in a semi religious fervour. At times they can be tender and compassionate, at times they can be blunt and brutal.
Hadewijch is his fifth feature, and though it was ready for release back in 2009, it is only just getting a minor release. It’s not that hard to see why Dumont has not found a mainstream audience yet; his films are slow burning and can be uncompromising in their depiction of sex and violence. This latest work takes a detour somewhat, though sticks to the overriding themes of his previous offerings. Celine (Julie Sokolowski) is a young woman living in a remote nunnery in northern France, but her religious dedication is so intense that she is cast out by the senior nuns. They feel that the wayward girl will perhaps find her way back to God if she is living back in the real world.
Back in her privileged Paris existence, she meets Yassine (Yassine Salime), a devout muslim boy from the projects. Her naivety and vulnerability allow her to be taken into Yassine’s world, where his brother (Nassir Karl Sarafidis), also deeply religious, is charmed by Celine’s religious devotion. This leads her onto a path of ‘activism’ that would be unthinkable at the beginning of the film. It’s testament to Dumont’s ability as a filmmaker that we follow this journey through to the end.
Dumont’s main actors often have a earnest, almost simple quality to them. Julie Sokolowski is utterly compelling as Celine, her pale features and shivering emotions dominating the screen. Dumont has a remarkable ability to extract such raw, honest performances out of his non–actors, leaving us with moments of genuine spontaneity and tenderness. The vivid, sharp cinematography also contributes to this ‘thereness’ that Dumont conjures so masterfully.
Many viewers will be put off by the slowness, the sincerity, the ambiguity of Hadewijch, but those willing to surrender to the French director’s vision will find an enigmatic, surprising, oddly touching film about faith and redemption. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of his earlier Cannes winner L’Humanite, but there is no one quite like Bruno Dumont around at the moment.