”Some art aims directly at arousing the feelings; some art appeals to the feelings through the route of the intelligence. There is art that involves, that creates empathy. There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection… In film, the master of the reflective mode is Robert Bresson. All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty. The imagery of the religious vocation and of crime are used jointly. Both lead to “the cell.”— Susan Sontag, Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson
Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch is certain to be one of the most misunderstood films of this or any year, a blistering counterpunch to the prevailing understanding of the influence of Robert Bresson in the cinema and in modern life. Dumont uses the language and tools of Bresson’s “spiritual style” in order to subvert spiritual literalism and its logical and extreme conclusion. By taking the tropes and redemptive themes of the master himself, Dumont engages in a battle for the Bressonian legacy, rejecting the easy moral uplift of so much of recent cinema in favor of a finale that brings grace not to the spiritually conflicted warrior, but to a secular bricklayer hovering around the fringes of the narrative.
Céline (Julie Sokolowski) is a young novice aspiring to become a nun; living in a convent and practicing devout asceticism, the young girl is deeply in love with God and religious discipline. Céline’s faith is so strong, she refuses to follow the rules of her novitiate and is asked to leave the abbey, that she may apply her faith in the real world and learn to humble herself to the wishes of God. Returning to the the opulent world of her parent’s palatial home (her father is a government minister), Céline takes the spiritual advice literally, opening herself to secular experience and befriending an Arab boy named Yassine (Yassine Salime), a little thief with a penchant for disobeying traffic rules who introduces her to his devoutly Muslim older brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis). Céline and Nassir share a depth of devotion but seem connected only by the diversity of faith until, in the film’s controversial final act, Nassir persuades Céline to join his cause, resulting in an unexpected act of violence and a subsequent (I believe, anyway) act of redemption.
There seems to be a bit of a debate about the final three scenes of the film, and any discussion of Hadewijch would be superficial without looking at their meaning as they hold the key to understanding Dumont’s sly subversion of the now-standard Bressonian model. Needless to say (but here I am saying it anyway), spoilers abound from here on in.
Returning from a brief journey to an unnamed and devastated Arab community, the polar opposite of the cloistered luxury of Céline’s own experience (and the “real world” which galvanizes Céline’s belief in her return to the company of God), Céline and Nassir are shown on the platform of a subway station, nervously fidgeting and eagerly awaiting the train. The pair catch the train and ride, eyes darting and hands twitching until Dumont cuts to street level and a bomb detonates on the sidewalk. I have read it intimated that the pair committed a suicide attack on the subway and the film’s final scene is a flashback to a previous moment (and therefore ironic in its implied meaning) instead of a linear extension of the story, but the text of the film itself seems to indicate otherwise; the explosion is at street level and every sign points to the idea that the pair planted (or knew of the planting of) a bomb and made an escape. The subsequent and final sequence is linear and not elliptical.
Either way you slice it, turning a naive and devout Catholic into a bomber in the name of the fundamentalist Islam is a difficult narrative leap to pull off, and the emotional veracity of Céline’s transformation has been the subject of hot debate. But to focus on that transformation, to fixate on the act of violence, is to miss Dumont’s point and to take one’s eye off the ball completely. In the film’s final moments, Céline runs back to the convent and, as the police arrive (seemingly to question her), heads to a nearby pond where, in an act of emotional desperation straight out of Mouchette’s own devastating finale, she throws herself into the water in the hope of drowning. Suddenly, a hand reaches into the water and saves her; it is the convent’s handyman, an ex-convict who has appeared throughout the film in a few, seemingly unrelated scenes, who saves the girl’s life and, looking toward the heavens, redeems himself.*
In films like Procès de Jeanne d’Arc and Diary Of A Country Priest, Bresson addressed themes of anti-religious violence and the secular dismissal of the inner workings of religious faith, but what would he make of religious terror? Dumont’s slight of hand gives the film its true Bressonian link; instead of tracking the relationship between a pair of religious fundamentalists, we discover that the movie has really been tracking the intersection of a small-time criminal looking to get right with the world and a devout religious girl looking to re-establish what feels like a legitimate connection to the God she loves too well. And here we find Dumont back at the Sontag quote above; two characters, one looking to end his confinement and another looking for a clear space in which to worship God, each headed to and from “cells” of their own. More importantly, Sontag (who wrote her essay in 1964, before Bresson made Mouchette or Au hasard Balthazar), seems to nail the issue of psychology and motivation in Bresson’s films when she writes
“…the “interior drama” which Bresson seeks to depict does not mean psychology. In realistic terms, the motives of Bresson’s characters are often hidden, sometimes downright incredible…Psychological implausibility is scarcely a virtue…But what is central to Bresson and, I think, not to be caviled at, is his evident belief that psychological analysis is superficial. (Reason: it assigns to action a paraphrasable meaning that true art transcends.) He does not intend his characters to be implausible, I’m sure; but he does, I think, intend them to be opaque. Bresson is interested in the forms of spiritual action—in the physics, as it were, rather than in the psychology of souls. Why persons behave as they do is, ultimately, not to be understood. (Psychology, precisely, does claim to understand.) Above all, persuasion is inexplicable, unpredictable… Through the “project” (or “task” or “action”) —exactly contrary to “imagination”—one overcomes the gravity that weighs down the spirit…The spiritual style of Bresson’s heroes is one variety or other of unself-consciousness. (Hence the role of the project in Bresson’s films: it absorbs the energies that would otherwise be spent on the self. It effaces personality, in the sense of personality as what is idiosyncratic in each human being, the limit inside which we are locked.) Consciousness of self is the “gravity” that burdens the spirit; the surpassing of the consciousness of self is “grace,” or spiritual lightness.”
This, in a nutshell, is the perfect articulation of Dumont’s handling of Céline (and her conversion to terror and ultimate humiliation) and the handyman (and his salvation). But there is more than just spiritual philosophy; Dumont makes several direct references to Bresson’s films throughout Hadewijch. Céline seems to embody several Bressonian heros all at once; the wealthy, devout Anne-Marie and the young murderess Therese from Bresson’s debut film Les anges du péché (Hadewijch seems to echo its plot as well**), the ascetic, God-loving Priest from an immoral community in Diary Of A Country Preist, the naive victim of adult male brutality in Mouchette (let alone that ending!) and on and on. As such, it is Dumont’s particular brand of genius to look into the heart of a religious terrorist and find a direct, empathetic link to Bresson’s spiritual universe and then to re-direct the outcome to an almost forgotten character who subverts the narrative primacy of the heroine and relocates grace among the secular order of things. It is here that Dumont’s film stands in contrast to Bresson’s own works, subverting Sontag’s clear-eyed observation that
“…the form of Bresson’s films is designed…to discipline the emotions at the same time that it arouses them: to induce a certain tranquility in the spectator, a state of spiritual balance that is itself the subject of the film.”
Dumont, on the other hand, is interested in Hadewijch as a provocation, especially for the Western audiences who can find little of their own tradition in the rise of fundamentalist Islam. There is an attempt to create a direct and emotional relationship between the spectator and Céline (which is why I believe so many people are outraged by the film’s final act)–there is even a beautiful musical interlude in a church that attempts to bring us directly into the sublime aspect of Céline’s idea of faith. But Céline is both naive and confused, and Dumont’s style is always hinting at the disconnect instead of the harmony. Céline consistently mistakes her deep affinity for the trappings of religious faith with their meaning in world. In other words, like many of Bresson’s heroines, she is a teenager, a young girl institutionally alienated from her God crush, disgusted by the politics of her parents, acting on her feelings and looking to connect. Céline’s flaws, her teenage literalism and confused, manipulable feelings, are applied against Bresson’s “spiritual style” in a modern world where that style has itself been improperly literalized in the political manifestations of religious fundamentalism. Sontag again:
“Bresson’s Catholicism is a language for rendering a certain vision of human action, rather than a ‘position’ that is stated.”
Again, Dumont understands. The film is not so much an excoritaion of literal religious fundamentalism as it is a reclamation of a vision of meaningful human action in a world seemingly gone fucking crazy. I can’t tell you how many films I’ve seen over the past few years that miss this crucial point while attempting to genuflect toward Bresson’s indisputable mastery, but Dumont’s Hadewijch stands above and alone. It is brilliant, recognition enough that grace doesn’t exist among the trappings of a politicized, exploitative faith, but is instead harbored in the earthbound action and heavenward eyes of a simple handyman.
*If this scene is indeed an ellipsis, occurring prior to the bombing, the meaning is implied that the handyman saves the girl and thinks himself redeemed, only to have saved the life of a woman who will go on to murder in the name of God. As juicy as that idea is, I just can’t see how the text of the film supports it.
**…which further undermines the idea of the elliptical ending.