“Love, by your unnamed power have mercy on me. You are the light of my day and my days are nights. Why? Why? To pursue you without end? Why run away from me? Being further and further away, you make me pay, Love, a price too high. Woe is me to be a human being.”

Céline in Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (2009)

My mind’s clacking mill 
grinds and grinds/Words confound, ward off peace/I stack wood, beat, mangle, peg clothes/I moisten dry clay, turn damp earth,
tend beet, onion, turnip.
 Silence: my true nature/
where nothing confuses your language, holy Mary/
Mother of us all…

Hadewijch of Antwerp, from a convent garden, 1233. (From: James Charlton

, Transgressive Saints)

I watched Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (2009) last night. I loved La Vie de Jesus, his first movie as well as L’Humanité, his second film. Michael Koresky has a fine review of the movie and gets it mostly right. The main character Céline is modeled as a modern-day Hedewijch, the 13th century poet and mystic who expressed her  love for god in the language of courtship, of passionate unrequited love.

The plot, when summarized as a bare-bones summary, is indeed about a deeply religious teenage Christian girl who falls in with the wrong set, in this case Muslims from the banlieues of Paris who convince Céline to participate in their plans to engage in acts of violence which are themselves not specified but shown in an image of one explosion, and that too, without a full view of consequence: the smoke obscures our access to the destruction that the blast may have caused.

“He chose me.”

When the anguished Céline, as devout as her Muslim friends, says in a conversation with them, “He chose me”, and this is followed by a blast in Paris, we assume the worst- that she may have blown herself up, an easy target for brain-washing by terrorists. This as it turns out is not the case. The movie’s conclusion is far more poignant. And it is not inscrutable: Koresky seems to think it is. More on the ending later.

Koresky wonders if the movie serves easy meat for a discussion of politically offensive stereotypes about Arabs – impressionable (white) French teenager falls in with the wrong set, in this case Arabs in France plotting acts of violence. He also observes correctly that the movie makes it difficult however to settle on this simplistic summary given Dumont’s characteristic reticence when it comes to character motivation, and causality – not that events don’t make sense, but that Dumont moves in broad near-episodic and elliptical strokes from one stage of the narrative to another. That said, it is also not clear to me at all that Dumont seeks to expose, as Koresky puts it, the “apparent equivalency…between Christianity and Islam by conjoining the two in one horrific act”, to draw our attention to “the universal dangers of blind faith”, as Koresky puts it, with some skepticism at his own thesis.

There seems to be something more at stake in the movie than solely a programmatic assertion about religion. Dumont’s preoccupations with theology threaten, in my opinion, the more pragmatic implications of its plot.

For one, the movie’s images frequently indicate a sensuous engagement with the natural world. Céline’s presence, stooped in faith, but also profoundly physical and often abject  (tears flow freely from eyes that reveal anguish and torment) should clue us to a form of passion that is not just expressed in physical terms but seems to consume and saturate the body that merges the passionate and the devout. Her passage through the dark green forests, a tiny figure dwarfed by trees; her final descent into the water, Mouchette-like (she walks in, unlike Mouchette who rolls over after lying on her side), and the rain that drenches her and a fellow inhabitant of the convent, are part of a sparse style interested not so much in the real as in the metaphysical. Even her abstinence and fasting draw attention to her physical presence. The senior nuns in the convent confuse this palpable devotion to the body of Christ with an excessive and misplaced desire for martyrdom, and expel her from the convent. In other words, what Céline prefers is not transcendence but incorporation and absorption.

Likewise, Dumont’s long takes compel us to observe the movement of its main characters in space. If the camera does not shift its view for long periods of time, it has to do with a desire to convey inhabitation as essential and inescapable condition of this-worldly existence. The long takes of the film are not part of an immersion in duration or in the cinema’s ontological affinities with the temporal register (unlike say in Tarkovsky). Nor are they like the unfolding political statement that characterizes Godard’s long take of the traffic jam in Weekend, an unfolding live-action scroll-painting of dysfunction. And they are certainly unlike the intensified narrative function that characterizes the long take in Touch of Evil. One can’t place them as a formalist allegory of the repression of political atrocities, as in Haneke’s Caché, where the long take relies on offscreen space to expose a historical “elsewhere” (as Libby Saxton put it in her perceptive reading of Caché) impinging on the present.

And to make matters even more cryptic, as in La Vie de Jesus and L’Humanité, a character on the margins of the plot emerges gradually as the embodiment of – well, embodiment, the Christ Hadewijch has been searching for all along.

Emaciated, ribs and collar bones visible, seemingly under-nourished, this character, a construction worker working on renovations to the convent, is shown as a face that demands our response even as it responds to Céline’s presence quite early in the movie.

Is the construction worker the carpenter of this narrative? Early in the movie, he is in fact detained by authorities and spends a night in jail. As Céline witnesses the consequences of a bombing, the carpenter’s mother holds his hand and hopes he will be fine now that he is out of jail. Something of a weariness marks many of Dumont’s working class characters and this scene between mother and son is no exception. And when not in search for a metaphysics Dumont strives for a bland realism of setting in defining his working class characters that should alert us as well that in the Dumontian universe there is no such thing as a stereotype, only the typical that afflicts the devout, the worker, the reactionary, the radical.

In the film’s most dramatic scene, and one accompanied by moving – and rare by the movie’s standards – non-diegetic music, Céline weeps:

“Love, by your unnamed power have mercy on me. You are the light of my day and my days are nights. Why? Why? To pursue you without end? Why run away from me? Being further and further away, you make me pay, Love, a price too high. Woe is me to be a human being.”

Then she walks into the water, disappearing to the ripples on the surface till a hand reaches in and pulls her out.  Pressed tightly against the shirtless emaciated body of the worker who has just rescued her,  Céline’s weeping face rests against the nape of his neck. The reverse shot reveals Céline’s back, and the face of the worker. The embrace is so tight Céline risks pulling the worker into the water as he momentarily tries to regain his footing. But the proximity of view risks pulling us into that embrace. The screen is intensely haptic at this point, and its depicted body as a location for solace.

It is against this faith of the body that the movie poses a different kind of faith, that of Yassine, the elder brother of Nasser, the boy who has taken a liking for Céline.  Yassine is hardly portrayed as a terrorist, even though he does introduce Céline to friends who we assume are radical and potentially dangerous. It is Yassine who expresses the answer to the question Celine will pose to her god at the end: “Why run away from me?”.. He invites Céline to his weekly discourses on the Koran. In speaking of the god of the Koran, he speaks of god as being at once more visible and more invisible, of a simultaneous absence and presence, of seeing and the unseen, of the known and the hidden.

What the movie subtly contrasts with Hadewijch’s desire for incorporation is not entirely a radicalism of violence and death, but a philosophy of the divine that is in fact perhaps too incorporeal, too (dangerously?) reasoning a mode of belief compared to the one Hadewijch desires (forward to 8:47 in following clip for relevant scene):

The lecherous man in Yassine’s Quran class, who is censured by Yassine and whose looks compel Céline to leave the room as she listens to Yassine expound on the Quran, seems less intended to undercut the legitimacy of Yassine’s words, than to underscore Céline’s desire to reinforce her faith. If the lecherous man is Dumont’s attempt to expose the hypocrisies of religion, then the fabulous wealth of Céline’s parents is an attempt to justify her rejection of her own upbringing. And neither interpretation can be entirely convincing  given that the narration of the movie hardly offers us an indication of how we are to interpret these scenes symptomatically in relation to a broader politics of culture, religion and class. The subsequent meeting with representatives of radical forces arranged by Yassine strikes me therefore as a scene that is under-motivated. The ensuing violence and chaos too seems cursory, or unconvincing in light of what we have seen of Yassine. Whether these aspects constitute the movie’s shortcoming, is a different matter.

There is a third mode of inhabiting the world, of experience as bliss posited by the movie in contrast to both Hadewijch and Yassine: that of the sensuous experience of music, of an aesthetics of everyday life. Dumont refuses to condense musical performances, instead treating us to the entirety of the performance of a band of  young men who play a version of Bach on their accordion and rock guitar; and the entirety of a Chamber music performance.

It is Nasser, the young Muslim man, who seems closest to this domain of experience.As the band plays and as Nasser and Céline dance to their music – one of the few moments when we see her for the teenager that she really is – Nasser tries to kiss Céline but is rebuffed. Prone to rebelliousness, an insouciance to authority and property, and in love with Hadewijch, Nasser is nevertheless intellectually mature enough to sense the gravity of her devotion and leads her to his brother, as if he has already absorbed and reconciled himself to the dead-ends of the faith of his elder brother and of the girl he likes. It is with Nasser, that we witness a lightness of experience, of living, of being in this world and in this moment, that is transient. Even Céline seems unable to always resist the allure of his young man’s attitude to his life.

To think of this movie then as a contrast between faith and politics, between Christianity and Islam, seems woefully misplaced. Dumont is after something else – through a kind of grounded realism he exposes us to the unresolved tensions between the many ways of inhabiting this world,  and the equally numerous ways in which faith manifests itself as experience, intellection, in-habitation, as a mode of action and finally as incorporation.