Within the very first moments of “Hemel,” a couple writhe naked in bed. Their playful banter and back-and-forth focuses on the unsubstantial equipment, which he laughs off with only a slightly bruised ego. It’s only when he starts to rag on her pubic hair that she begins to unravel, disappointed that her lover would complain about tasting her hair. Within moments, he’s lathering her with shaving cream, lovingly running the blade up and down between her legs. As he walks off to wash, she lies on her back, completely barren. She’s fine being nude, but it’s clear she hates being vulnerable.
In Dutch helmer Sacha Polak‘s film, which screened over the weekend as part of New Directors/New Films, the striking Hanna Hoekstra plays the title character of “Hemel,” which translates to “Heaven.” Her name already suggests a closeness to her parents, though it’s eventually learned that she knows little of her mother, who passed on at an early age, leading to a closeness with her father Gijs, an older gentleman with a curious hunger for young women. Heaven drifts from man to man, demanding sex, and then a very particular sort of closeness afterwards that few can provide, aside from good old Dad.
“Hemel” unfolds in several chapters as Heaven unravels, clearly seeking a place to belong. While the film hammers this point home with a singleminded determination, it’s still fascinating to see the many personal dramas played out when Heaven visits the son of one of her father’s paramours on his eighteenth birthday. While she does not flirt with the grown boy, she chastises him for waiting until marriage to consummate, before drunkenly spilling details about her own bedroom life. We slowly start to realize the loneliness of this sex addict when its revealed that she hasn’t seen this boy in years.
Gijs watches his daughter disintegrate with a level of bemused love and casual indifference. A renaissance man of sorts (he’s seen running an art house, practicing trumpet and generally being a man about town), he spends the bulk of his time taking in a series of lovers, many much younger than he, some close to his own daughter’s age. The women have no qualms with this, but it allows Heaven to exploit the common ground and test them, turning her father’s affections into a prize. This naturally occurs after each of her own dalliances have ended — it seems that for her, all roads lead back to Daddy.
“Hemel” focuses on Heaven’s struggles to control her sexuality, failing her fickle nature and chasing consistently older men, until its last third. It’s when we see the closeness between her and her father. It’s purely an emotional attachment between the two of them, but Polak plays that one note a bit too stringently, obscuring Heaven’s struggles by boiling her issues down to a mundane Elektra Complex. When given a chance to open a window into Heaven’s identity, Polak instead closes it, reducing Hoekstra to play an affliction rather than a character. “Hemel” is sharply realized in fits and starts, but its this lack of psychological depth that robs the film of its potential considerable dimension. [B]