To say that Bruno Dumont is a divisive director is something of an understatement. The French film-maker has polarised audiences and critics alike since he burst onto the European scene with his debut feature, La Vie dé Jesus, 15 years ago. His films can be stark, uncompromising, bleak and ambiguous, demanding much from his audience, particularly since he tends to cast non-professional actors in scenarios that are elliptical and tricky. All of the above also happens to make him one of the most compelling auteurs at work today.
Dumont’s two most famous works to date, L’Humanité (1999) and Flanders (2006), both received major awards at Cannes while being simultaneously jeered by sections of the audience. A philosophy lecturer who taught himself the art of movie-making, Dumont’s movies generally contain a religious theme though the director himself admits that his interest lies less with the philosophical than the mystical.
His latest film, Hadewijch, is a case in point. A Bressonian (in both a philosophical and a technical sense) treatise on the question of faith, the movie is named for an obscure 13th Century poet and mystic and features a crew of non-professional actors. Chief among them is Julie Sokolowski in the role of Céline, a young novice living in a convent whose severe ascetic behaviour (she models herself after the titular character) brings her to the attention of her Mother Superior. Realising that her young postulant is fasting in the extreme, the older nun offers her young subject a chunk of bread ("we don’t want martyrdom") only to witness her handing it out to the birds. Though Celine’s devotion to God is absolute, she is asked to leave the abbey and apply her faith in the real world.
While this might have seemed a good approach on paper, in practice, it proves to be troubling since it soon becomes clear that Céline is always going to find it difficult to come to terms with the world that lies beyond the walls of the convent. For one thing, she seems entirely out of place in her luxury home on the Ile St-Louis with her busy, haut-bourgeois family (her father is a Government minister). For another, Céline is far too trusting, vulnerable and guileless to be let loose on modern society. Heeding her Mother Superior’s advice to open herself up to experience, she befriends two Arab brothers from the projects, the elder of whom has an equally passionate devotion to his Islamic faith. Not long after he shares with her his opinions that "God is a sword against injustice" and "You must act in the world if you have faith", Céline’s spiritual journey takes her down a path that inexorably leads to violence.
At this point in the story we enter a world of spoiler alerts, but it’s a third act that will linger. Beautifully directed, paced and framed by Dumont (check out those expressive close-ups), Hadewijch is also memorable for the central performance of his young protagonist. Julie Sokolowski’s child-like presence and stillness brilliantly serves Dumont’s text and provides the internal drama so beloved of Bresson. It’s a remarkable performance from a non-professional who puts most of her peers to shame.