Hadewijch, the new feature from the...what's the word? "interesting?" "problematic?" depends on who you talk to, I guess, I myself think both or either quite a lot of the time...French director Bruno Dumont, opens theatrically in New York on Christmas Eve, and never let it be said that IFC, the concern responsible for this U.S. engagement, doesn't have a sense of humor. For this film is a story of a young woman of privilege who feels herself consumed by her love of God, and for her troubles in this resepct is kicked out of the convent in which she seems so happy. After which she takes up with some young Muslim jihadists. What ensues largely eschews the oft-graphic content of some of Dumont's prior films, which include L'humanite, Twenty-Nine Palms, and Flandres.I was impressed with the film and impressed with the performance of lead actress Julie Sokolowski, who plays the sort-of title role; her character also goes by her given name, Céline.
As the film approaches its U.S. opening, there has been some debate in various social media as to what actually happens in the picture, and some of this debate has been heated, and some of the heat has been emanating from my own self, as I see the film as being pretty unambiguous with respect to what "actually" happens...in that it, you know, actually shows what happens on the screen, within its frames, and so on. Others feel that events as depicted, or "depicted" in Hadewijch are more open to interpretation, such as it is. If I seem to be dancing around the issue, it's because I want to spare any spoilers from readers who have yet to see the film, which I believe is a noteworthy one and well worth seeing. These questions or matters of interpretation go straight to the heart of what kind of movie Hadewijch is. Or perhaps they go straight to the heart of a statement made by a friend who doesn't share my admiration for the director's work, that is, "I don't think he knows how to make a movie."
As for the interview that runs below, it could be said to constitute one long spoiler in and of itself, in a sense, particularly so after the jump, and so I want to emphasize that I am offering it here, earlier than I might have, as a kind of "service" to readers who've already seen the film and want to get back on Twitter and get into a virtual screaming match with people who think...well, never mind. What the reader who hasn't seen the picture yet might want to do is bookmark this and come back later if he or she is interested.
In the interest of not looking like I'm cheating or anything, I reproduce the interview straight from the transcript (complete with occasional "[unclear]"s), my long-winded questions included. The interview was conducted in early October of 2009 in New York City.
Q: I want to talk about the impetus for this particular film. Flandres, I think, can be looked at as a film about war and about love. And this can be looked at as a film about love and war, or a certain form of war, or the war within the heart, the war without. And I wonder if there was a specific bridge between your conception of Flandres and your conception of this film, or if they're totally discrete objects.
BD: (through interpreter) Just the fact of being inside someone who's so passionate and how that can then go over and veer off into something that's totally different, the opposite of love. And that's very disturbing for me and that's what I want to explore. When does the door open? That fact is very disturbing metaphysically.
Q: Because the film itself is in some respects open to interpretation in that its depiction of an active jihad, or terrorism is somewhat detached, somewhat dispassionate and is not something that the film seems to overtly condemn, it merely, the way you showed it, merely hits. It's almost like a map through process: this happens, this happens, this happens and then this happens. Were you trying to keep the film in a kind of detached position?
Bruno Dumont: (through interpreter) Yes, you're absolutely right. There's an association, one association into another, and into another. And then Hadewijch placed the bomb, which is the entire—entirely the opposite of what—who she is, what she does at the very beginning of the film. It's presented in a manner that's clinical, that's mechanical, and which is totally incredible. But that isn't the end of the film. That's merely a very brief instant in the film. The end of the film is what happens after the explosion. And while everything at that moment is a moment of incredible despair and alienation, the ending of the film isn't.
Q: Yes. Well, there are some theories among some of the more excitable critics attending the New York Film Festival that the final scene of the film is actually a flashback, which I don't buy into at all, because first of all, there are several things that tell you it's not. For instance, the very beginning of the film your character's clothing is very binding—
Julie Sokolowski: Um hm.
Q: It's clear that you've returned to the convent after [unclear] with the mother superior. And it's rather mordantly funny in retrospect, the Mother Superior having said to your character, earlier in the film, “Go get experience.” And boy, does your character get experience. And your mode of dress is entirely different, your mode of hair entirely different. So to interpret this scene as a flashback seems to me entirely ridiculous. But I have to inform you that there are some who will. But I wanted to segue to a perhaps more banal but interesting question, not too much about interpretations but about process, which is how you came to be in the film, how Bruno and you met and then what you were doing prior to that and how you came to go on this adventure.
JS: (through interpreter) When I met Bruno I was an 18-year-old girl who had just finished lycee in France. I attended a screening of Flandres in Lille and met Bruno on that occasion. I was an absolutely ordinary girl. I wasn't interested in acting, I was more drawn if at all to cinema perhaps in directing. But I was planning to go to New York City for a year, spend a year there, working as an au pair girl, which is what I did. And I think that's pretty much—wraps it up.
Q: It's interesting, this is, if I'm not mistaken, the first feature you've shot in Paris. But watching it and seeing the rock band, the fellow with the accordion, not the most common instrument in the rock bands; except for if it was an American band They Might Be Giants; otherwise, the accordian, usually not a big part of rock. And they're playing not a traditional rock song but they're repeating a motif from a Bach piece that's played earlier in the film. It gave me a sense that you're setting--among other things that you're setting the film almost in an invented kind of Paris or an overt construct. I found the device very interesting. It kind of threw—is it just that you wanted to keep the integrity of the musical motifs involved in the picture consistent but in terms of what they say, verisimilitude, it is an interesting digression.
BD: (through interpreter) I need to manipulate realism. Realism doesn't interest me for a second. What I'm interested in is dealing with the interior of the characters. But it's very true that cinema gives a very strong impression of realism. But the exteriors don't mean—the exteriors aren't expressed as such. Through the entire film I'm seeking to go inside Hadewijch. Beginning to end the film takes place in Hadewijch's heart, within her passions, within the love that motivates her. So all these landscapes, Paris, they all really are inside her. There's not [unclear] logical, the exterior doesn't interest me as such, it's only a question of how they are around to exteriorize what's going on inside. But the elements that you mentioned are indications to the spectator that something else is going on than mere reality, than mere realism.
Q: By the same token, to pursue a slightly different take, the dialogue between Hadewijch and her young friends, the young friends she makes, that all starts being very true. There's a real—there's a fantastic sense of even typical language, but from French to English there's a real sense of the way teenagers talk to each other, the kind of circular conversations they have that then end in some sort of very blunt question—“Hey, wait a minute, you don't have a…”—“Are you this or”—circling around and then sort of honing in. And I was wondering to the extent that that was precisely noted in the script, or if you would work with Julie and the other actors to try and get a more, we're open to suggestion in terms of getting that kind of tentative adolescent nuance to the dialogue.
BD: (through interpreter) The impressions you get comes from, stems from the fact that there is a lot of improvisation in scenes but nonetheless there are obligations that they have in terms of actors. I don't write out dialogue for them but at the same time I give them precise instructions as to what they have to do. I tell Céline, for example, that nothing but the young boy that she has to flirt with is the focus and within that, I tell Céline that she has to reject his advances. And I let it up to them how to do that. So that gives a very strong impression of hyper-realism within those scenes. And the actors are so surprising that it leads actually to a sense of surrealism. The surrealism that comes from this real improvisation, for example, when a spectator looks at them, saying things, that's why they're doing it, or this is what's happening, but why does he take her arm at that point? It's very complicated. [unclear] the spectator asks questions. This is—it's difficult for the actors too cause it means that they have to act, but this is their work. They are playing their parts.
Q: There are two specific themes that are brought up in the film that I thought were very moving and very provocative, that are not necessarily--that are not overtly connected to the action and I wanted to address them separately. The first is the notion that's first brought up by the Mother Superior when she tells Hadewijch/Céline, to go out and seek experience, and saying that her love for Christ or her love for God amounts to a kind of narcissism, which we're not actually—we don't know if that's true or not. But there's a point later on in the picture where Céline is explaining her religious faith and she says, I love Him and He loves me in a very, very definite way. Like as if it is a very true personal relationship. In the United States evangelical religious types always talk about actually their personal relationship with Jesus. I don't know if that's as common a trope or a metaphor in French religious practice or sex, but it's a very common thing among evangelicals. But there is in that whole idea, there is clearly an idea that there's a narcissism working there. And I wondered first of all in terms of your conception of the character, was that the case? And also in terms of your interpretation of the character, what that notion, but in your view, what that notion—how that notion helped motivate parts of your performance, if it was indeed—if you did indeed perceive it that way in the first place.
JS: (through interpreter) The real historical figure of Hadewijch is like that. In her letters she wrote she talks about the fact that Christ would visit her and come to her but not visit the others, so she said perhaps He would come [unclear] to visit the other sisters at another point. But she's very much in that relationship and what she says about Him. So that seems to be an element not of—it's just elsewhere. It's true as then Bruno added a belief of God is one of the highest expressions of self love, selfishness, which is what also the Mother Superior says in the film. She's not a nun in real life. On the contrary, she is a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne. But she says to Julie that she is too much in love with herself. I think that's true of all believers. The believers are too much in love finally with themselves.
Q: And another theme that is brought up during the Koran study meeting and is noted as being something that is an idea that runs through all religions is God's invisibility, God's refusal to manifest. It's something of course that's been treated in depth by Ingmar Bergman whose films talk about God's silence. And there's a notion arguably at the end of the film when Hadewijch is saved, of God or at least God's love manifesting itself through secular or some form of physical love. But I was wondering, you're in the process of conceiving and making the film, where your own perspectives on the idea of God's refusal and/or inability to manifest asserted themselves.
BD: (through translator) Yes, I think that the only possible manifestation of God's love is through man and every other aspect is invisible. And to me it was very clear that this—I needed Hadewijch to find salvation in this embrace. If I didn't have that embrace at the end of the film, then everything is lost and it wouldn't work. I needed that, as a resolution for the act of terrorism, the explosion. Cause otherwise it would have been totally desperate. If I don't have that hope reach her at the end of the film, then everything else is lost. We need the sense of self-sacrifice in the film. She has to die, she has to [unclear] to be reborn again. She needs this, to kill herself. She dies, she sacrifices herself for us, for the spectators.
Q: I think we're good. Thank you.
JS: Thank you. [END]