I’ll admit it: I was raring to see Hadewijch because the story of a girl too scarily religious for a convent sounded right up my alley. I was expecting something satirical but empathetic, like Luis Buñuel on a kinder day. But Bruno Dumont, the director of the 2009 film soon to be playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, is more likely to evoke comparisons with his countryman Robert Bresson; like the maker of Diary of a Country Priest and the nihilistic The Devil, Probably, Dumont may have a sense of irony about religion, but he doesn’t brook much laughter over it.
These directors share a certain quietness of approach, letting their characters exist without forcing the viewer to judge. Yet, in their worlds, the desire, loneliness and ecstasy inextricable with spirituality are so overwhelming that the viewer cannot find the distance and calm needed for humor. So even when the fervent young protagonist, stark naked, looks her little pet dog in the eye, whispers a benediction over him, and makes the sign of the cross, it’s more ghastly and sad than funny.
The title protagonist of Hadewijch–her given name is Céline, but she has adopted the name of a thirteenth-century Dutch mystic for convent life–has taken to extreme ascetism: in cold weather, she hunches in the convent’s garden with no coat; she refuses food and, when a superior presses a piece of bread into her hands, she tears it into crumbs and feeds it to the birds. There’s a perverse sensuality in these early scenes. We hear Céline’s shivery breathing as she crosses the cavernous, mossy forest to the monastery, and later, the prayers she whispers alone in her room.
The nuns, unsettled, push Céline into the real world, where they hope that she will “find herself.” At first, the young woman seems to have adapted to Paris. She almost immediately falls in with an unemployed young Muslim man, Yassine, who lives in the city’s poor suburbs. She seems to embody a certain Christian mystical ideal in her interactions with Yassine: she’s kind and refuses to judge, qualities that set her apart from her ultra-wealthy parents. Her matter-of-fact declaration “I love Christ” is an expression of deep personal feeling, not a conversion attempt.
But Céline’s beliefs are unorthodox to say the least, and the surety she places in them approaches psychosis. She does not think that Christ is omnipresent. By leaving the convent she has lost him and she misses him, misses his “body.” She seems so bereft of love of a man that she has deified it, to the point where no mundane relationship can appease her.
Once Yassine, though respectful of her religion, discovers that he can’t compete against Christ for Céline’s passion, the uneasy tone of the film tenses further. We realize that the protagonist’s emergence from the convent doesn’t just bring her into conflict with secular multiculturalism. Hadewijch concerns the potentially catastrophic diversion of sexual urges to religious ends: the clash of the sexes more than that of Islam and the West.
The threat of rape, never directly implied, surfaces in the looks of the men around Céline as she wanders alone at the outskirts of the city. Yet here Dumont puts the audience in an acutely uneasy position. When showing the naïve future nun walking past a group of roughly friendly but staring men in front of a cement high-rise, the director knows his audience will sense the frightening subtext.
On the other hand, Yassine’s resentment over Céline’s rejection stems not only from her refusal itself, but also from the contempt he perceives directed toward an Arab man with a white woman friend. He’s still lonely, and he must endure the same prejudice as if he were really dating her.
If this film had been made by, say, Michael Haneke, the combination of observed racism and implied sexual threat might be another tool to make a white, middle-class audience feel vaguely guilty. “Am I worried for Céline because I’m a racist?” such a sensitive bourgeois might wonder.
Dumont plays a more complex game, because the danger here compounds more than sexuality and racial tension. Céline’s longing for Christ meets Yassine’s brother Nassir, an ardent Muslim, and decides to place her spiritual hope in his hands. Nassir’s religious beliefs are inseparable from his politics and his influence transforms Céline’s need for transcendence into something terrifying.
I frankly find Hadewijch hard to judge as a film. Dumont’s style is so beautifully detached that it’s difficult to say whether he’s presenting us with strawman insights. The young woman’s physical desire for Jesus may be startling and even convincing, but how exactly does it lead her to terrible acts? The script implies that Céline’s loneliness stems from her father’s apathy, but why has this translated into fanatical Catholicism? The film drops heavy hints, but never begins to explain its complexities.
The surprisingly lyrical ending, which takes place at the beloved convent, seems to carry a humanistic message, but could also be interpreted as introducing a Christlike figure to the plot at the last minute. If that’s so, the final scene adds an allegorical element that simplifies Céline’s deep psychological wounds.
Still, I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent film with such a lovely close-up as the one that Dumont holds on Céline’s face as she hears her beloved Christ’s presence in a Bach quartet. You may have to return to Bresson to find such a portrait of rapture.