Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Critics don't like to talk about this much - hell, we don't even like to think about this much - but some films are much harder to review than others. This could be because they contain a central Lynchian labyrinth that defies you to help another viewer through it without watching it half a dozen times and turning your words into spoiler central. Or, perhaps, like a Claire Denis film, they have a quivering but delicate emotional argument that can end up looking like a skewered butterfly on a board, shorn of its beauty, if it is pinned down with the wrong phrases. Bruno Dumont's latest film is afflicted with of both of these assessment beartraps to a certain extent but, from my perspective, it is rendered difficult to analyse by the biggest critical killer of all: ambivalence.

Worse still, the ambivalence I feel towards Hadewijch is the shifting sort, meaning that almost every day since I saw it at San Sebastian Film Festival, I've turned it over in my mind, prodded it a bit and reached a different conclusion as to its merits and failings. So, the following is how I feel about the film today - but I suspect this may be subject to change.

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Hadewijch is essentially exploring the notion of 'extremism', asking us to consider what we mean by the term - particularly within a religious or fanatical framework - and challenging our preconceptions of what an extremist might look like and, for that matter, what ideas may drive their devotion. Whatever mental picture you conjure up, it is unlikely to be an image of Celine, the modern-day Parisian central character of Dumont's piece, whom we meet as she grapples with her novitiate at a convent. It is here that she is known as Hadewijch - a name taken, one presumes, from the 13th century mystic, whose work often addressed the idea of avoiding the cut and thrusts of worldly courtship in favour of love for God.

And, boy, oh boy, does this girl love God. In fact, she's so enamoured of sacrificing herself to him in various ways - self-harm is high on her agenda - that the nuns view it as a sign of 'self-love' and thrust her back out in the community. Returning to the near-palatial but emotion-free halls of her family home - you can almost see Dumont pointing at a blackboard, while saying: "Look what drives her, kids" - she moons about the place a lot before, on a trip to the local cafe, her path crosses that of Muslim Yassine (Yassine Salihine). Through him, she comes to meet his brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), and the pair of them find common ground through their deeply religious viewpoints... common ground which may not have an entirely altruistic outcome.

From its cool colour palette to its pale and wan central protagonist, Dumont's film is the very essence of melancholy. Extremism here is an almost circular state, as Dumont puts those things which would seem to be diametrically opposed - pain/pleasure, elation/grief, damnation/redemption - under the microscope to demonstrate they may be a lot closer to one another than you might initially think.

This 'clinical' approach - coupled with a perplexing narrative and a head-scratching denoument - burden the film. Although dealing with very strong emotional themes, Dumont is always one step removed from them, like an aloof professor peering down at his characters in a petri dish. This coldness is a problem, since while it may help us to consider his themes on an intellectual level, it serves to put up a wall between the film and the viewer. In other words, for a film about the brimming over of one girl's emotional fervour, it does surprisingly little to elicit a 'gut response' from the audience.

In the central role, Julie Sokolowski - in her first part - is compelling and as Dumont's camera hugs her every move, it is impossible not to see the depths of her pain. That said, seeing is not necessarily feeling. Because of the emotional disconnect, much of the middle portion of the film is reminiscent of a bird in a cage, on the one hand quite exquisite to look at, yet on the other stultifyingly boring, since our engagement with it is restricted. Ultimately, although I can admire Dumont's craft, if you ask me how I feel about Hadewijch, I can only arrive at one - rather damning - conclusion. I don't.

Reviewed on: 13 Oct 2009
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Exploration of religious extremism as viewed through the eyes of a young woman.
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Director: Bruno Dumont

Writer: Bruno Dumont

Starring: Julie Sokolowski, Yassine Salihine, David Dewaele, Karl Sarafidis

Year: 2009

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: France

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