France (2009) Dir. Bruno Dumont

Having adopted the name Hadewijch, the devotion to her faith of young novice nun Céline (Julie Sokolowski), the daughter of rich Parisian family, is considered so extreme that her Mother Superior (Brigitte Mayeux-Clergot) is forced to expel her from the convent to save her. Returning to Paris, Céline meets a young Muslim lad Yassine (Yassine Salim), a bit of as tearaway who opens Céline’s eyes to the less moral side of life while providing some new experiences for her. Yassine introduces Céline to his brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), a radical Muslim who convinces Céline they are on the same page, surreptitiously recruiting her to participate in his terrorist campaigns.

French director Bruno Dumont challenges us with this stark and confrontational film about the absence of faith in life. It is neither an attack nor a celebration of religion – it is simply about it, offering no answers but raises some intriguing questions. It tries to make sense of something which the protagonist wants to be real but is acutely aware that it isn’t and thus forces herself on a journey to make this connection as real as possible.

Céline is a student studying theology and like the real Hadewijch – a 13th century mystic and poet whose life and poems inspired Dumont’s script – came from a rich family but rejected it for Christianity. However Céline’s devotion to God goes too far – starving herself and standing out in the rain – claiming it is in the name of abstinence, but as the Mother Superior points out “Abstinence not martyrdom” is the more true way. Upon arriving back home to her bourgeois origins where her father is a government minister, it is clear that her old creature comforts have little effect and that her parents aren’t in the least bit interested anyway, suggesting Céline’s journey might have come about from a lack of love within the family unit.

It is after meeting Yassine and later Nassir that Céline is thrown into true turmoil. Yassine is clearly bad boy who forces Céline’s hand about her relationship with God and how she cannot love anyone as she is keeping herself pure for Him otherwise she has nothing. Naturally, Yassine can’t get his head around this concept and tells Céline so, planting some much needed seeds of doubt and confusion into her head. Nassir is a smooth talking teacher of the Quran who uses his religion’s words to comfort Céline, an intriguing dichotomy if there ever was one but Nassir convinces Céline that they are both searching for the same thing from their Gods despite being on opposite sides of the theological fence. However Nassir is a fundamentalist Muslim and uses his words to manipulate Céline into joining his cause, suggesting that faith and action are intertwined while inaction is a sin.

As a newcomer to Dumont and his films, I can see that he clearly has something to say with this film but by choosing the arthouse approach of a slow pace, lingering shots of inertia and irrelevant music scenes – such as a rock and roll band lead by a manic accordion player (!) – the impact of his intent loses its lustre quite quickly. Thus the film becomes something of a slog as the story slips into a stop/start mode rather than establishing a tighter focus on the matter at hand. One distraction that one has a feeling will become congruent later on is that of a convict who is seen periodically throughout the film.

In non-professional actress Julie Sokolowski Dumont not only has found his perfect Céline but a very promising future prospect should she continue to pursue acting. In her debut role, she is not just natural and thus believable but her ability to emote and say so much with a simple look or gesture is remarkable for an untrained actress. Unfortunately the same can’t be said Yassine Salim, also making his debut, who is awkward and unconvincing at first, although he seems to find some footing by the end of his screen time. While the tedious pacing, awkward narrative and subtle symbolism is a matter of personal taste the presentation cannot be faulted; the cinematography is superb with some wonderfully composed shots of exquisite beauty.

As I said earlier, there are no answers in this film since realistically there cannot be any. The end is left wide open for the viewer to interpret whether Céline either found what she was looking for or has abandoned her quest. It could have been a far more engrossing and resonant journey, even for atheists such as myself, but the arty approach undermines the power of the story being told.

Hadewijch is a strangely effective film despite its narration faults and indulgent production which will no doubt be better suited to those familiar with Dumont’s prior work or the esoteric nature of arthouse cinema.