Film Review: Hadewijch

From would-be nun to fundamentalist accomplice is the unlikely but nonetheless absorbing premise of this stately spiritual study.

The most Bressonian film since, well, Bresson, Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch intently focuses on the title character (Julie Sokolowski) and her torturous spiritual journey. Kicked out of her convent for what is seen as excessive and self-indulgent displays of faith, like fanatical fasting, this failed nun moves back to her palatial Parisian home with her distant father (Luc François Bouyssonie) and depressive mother (Marie Castelain).

Dropping the name Hadewijch (originally a 13th-century mystic), and now known as Celine, she drifts about the city, trying to reconcile herself to non-religious life, but still determined to love God above all else and remain a virgin. She meets an Arab boy, Yassine (Yassine Salihine), whose advances she rebuffs, but who introduces her to his brother, Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who leads an Islam study group and gradually persuades Celine to join his terrorist activism.

There's not a lot of dialogue in Hadewijch, nor does Dumont really plumb the depths of his characters—it's a movie of surfaces, in which you never see how Celine became so religious, the roots of her antagonism with Dad, what's the matter with her mother, or Nassir's background. But what is amazing is how absorbing it nonetheless manages to be. This is largely due to the fine, naturalistic performances of the cast, and the setting: Although the subject matter may be on the drab side, the fortunate backdrop is Paris, which the director incisively celebrates in all its variegated glory, from Celine's posh Ile St. Louis abode to a Seine-side noise-band performance, to the humble projects where Yassine lives, which nonetheless offer an extraordinary view of the city.

Dumont has a fondness for the telling long shot—and the setting here fully justifies it. To call the pacing meditative would be understating it, but you're never bored. Well, maybe you might be during that rock concert which goes on for an eternity, but Dumont makes up for this indulgence with a classical troupe's chamber performance in a cathedral that is beautifully bracing.

Experiencing that chamber music, Sokolowski's face is quite lovely, filled with an inner radiance that goes beyond acting—which comes as a surprise, since for much of the film she looks so wan and bedraggled. It is this very mercurial quality of hers which propels things, and although she never asks for your sympathy, you desperately want to give it to her. Her character could easily have been an insufferable, fanatical bore, so it is all the more astonishing how much empathy Sokolowski calls up. Salihine is believably ardent as her would-be suitor and Sarafidis underplays nicely, making Nassir's violent fundamentalism all the more chilling, the terrorist next door.

I had a problem with the ending, however, in which Dumont brings in the climactic miracle and mystery of love as a coda to send you out the door with even more questions in your head. A much better and more powerful wind-up would have simply signed off with Celine's act of terrorism.