Saturday, April 17, 2010

New Film: Hadewijch & A Prophet (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.
Writer-director Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch (2009) provides key contributions to two of the more distinctive trends to have emerged in the European cinema of the previous decade: first, Dumont's current feature entails a further modification of the iconography of Robert Bresson, whose style has become something of a default mode for the continent's dramatic film art in the years surrounding and following the master's death in 1999. Hadewijch, no less than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Rosetta (1999) and L'Enfant (2005) specifically, represents a modification of the director's universe to its own adjusted worldview, which here is expressly humanist. Second, the filmmaker's latest continues the recent engagement with Europe's Islamification that works such as Michael Haneke's Caché (2005) and Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven (2007) portended previously. Once again, Dumont does not simply rehash the films that preceded his, but rather offers his individuated take on this civilization-redefining transformation. Dumont's work accordingly belongs to that very rare breed: it is a cinema of ideas that seeks to and indeed succeeds in provoking thought.

Dumont grounds his provocation - both in the above sense, and in the more conventional definition of an act of incitement (to which the director of L'humanité, 1999, is certainly no novice) - in his representation of Céline (Julie Sokolowski), a heavily-devout Catholic of collegiate age who opens the film inside a country convent. She is present from the film's opening, panning take, where the young nun rushes between moss-covered trees to a closed chapel gate, covered in the remnants of earlier votive offerings. From the first, Dumont and cinematographer Yves Cape saturate their images in deep blues similar to those of Maurice Pialat's Under the Sun of Satan (1987), one of the film's viable points of reference. Following shots of a crane in the midst of the cloisters - thereby establishing its modern setting - and of the pock-marked face of day-laborer David (David Dewaele) working in the grounds below, the film cuts to Céline kneeling beside as she offers supplication. As Céline prays, a box suspended by the crane hovers almost expectantly outside her window. When she finishes and rises to her feet, the crane mimics her motion, pulling the box upwards and out if view. With this doubled rising motion, Dumont presents a visual analogue to her silent act of prayer, and underscores Céline's connection to David whose life seems increasingly predestined to intersect with her own. Almost immediately thereafter, Céline's mother superior expels the young man from the religious community, claiming that she is a caricature of a nun and insisting that Céline's self-mortifying behavior is a mark of her narcissism. The older woman's craggy visage dominates the mise-en-scène, just as the nuns' corporeality, beneath their habits, dominated a previous, longer framing - in this respect, Dumont's film recalls Bresson's Les Anges du Peche (1943) rather directly. The elder nun speculates that Céline would be better off in the world. (David also leaves the cloister, though in his instance it is as a result of his incarceration for a parole violation.)

Now on the outside, the viewer is quickly introduced to Céline's aristocratic circumstances: she lives in an opulent Île de Saint-Louis flat with her mother and cabinet minister father. In a chance meeting at a café, Céline becomes acquainted with a young, unemployed Muslim immigrant Yassine (Yassine Salime), who invites Céline to an outdoor concert that consists of the rock stylings of an accordion player and saxophonist. (She will introduce the young man to her parents subsequently, and will ride with him after he steals a motorcycle to punish a Parisian for his profiling gaze.) In contrast, Céline subsequently attends the performance of a stringed quartet in a beautifully-appointed baroque church - and before a very sparse crowd. Dumont presents their piece in its entirety, echoing Eric Rohmer's similar musical set-piece in My Night at Maud's (1969), released forty years prior to Hadewijch. In both of Dumont's concert sequences, the camera lingers on long close-ups of Céline's face, which conveys both thoughtfulness and abandon in equal measure. Much like her experience of music, Céline's star-crossed love for Christ is mysterious and profoundly internal; because the object of her desire is absent (or at least invisible) her actions provide its only manifestation.

The meager crowd size combined with the richness of the setting contrasts even more distinctly with a religious meeting conducted by Yassine's brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis) in the back of a Middle Eastern food stand. (In the same way, the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century luxury of Céline's Parisian home compares with the stark, suburban high rise that Yassine and Nassir occupy.) In the meeting to which Nassir has invited the very-committed Céline, the former emphasizes "the notion of the invisible" in the Islamic faith, that Allah is "present in absence"; in this respect, his tone proves highly ecumenical. Unlike Céline's fellow Catholics, she finds others in the back room who are as committed to their faith as she is hers - Hadewijch clearly makes the point that spiritual devotion is essentially the purview of Muslims alone in contemporary France; in an exceptionally conflationary moment, the viewer will see Céline on her knees as Nassir and Yassine bow to Allah. Nassir consequently chastises one of the comparatively large number of attendees who stares at Céline's bra-less chest through her opaque t-shirt. Dumont's mise-en-scène in fact often underlines the young woman's pert physique. This incident prompts Céline to rush out of the room, and the group leader to follow her with an apology. Céline then claims to her new religious mentor that she cannot stand anyone looking at her other than Christ.

Céline then tells Nassir that "I love him and I know he loves me. He has come to me often," but will later admit that she no longer feels God's presence. In this regard, Céline's faith is expressed as particularly feminine in its emphasis not only on faith, but in the shared feeling between the former "bride" and her "husband." Hers is l'amour fou de dieu. With Nassir insisting that Céline must act if she has faith - his Islamic faith is presented as masculine in juxtaposition to her feminine, "love"-foregrounded Catholicism - she concedes to join Nassir in what proves ultimately to be a terrorist act. As such, Nasser's previously enlightened tone dissolves, as does the politically-correct inference that Islam is a religion of piece. (Likewise, Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, 1996, and its perverted ethical calculation provides another clear point of reference.) Céline's motivation, only lightly sketched by Dumont, derives principally from her feeling of loverly neglect, from the absence she now feels outside the cloister. Indeed, it is as though Céline decides to test her God in aiding Nassir's slaughter of innocents - which Dumont depicts in an uncharacteristically CGI explosion; she will be unfaithful in doing the will of Allah in order to generate a reaction for her God.

After her participation in this act of violence, she indeed returns to the cloister, where along with David (recently released from prison) and a third young nun, Céline finds relief from a sudden downpour within a greenhouse attached to the church. When the elderly nun finds the three, she scolds the group, insisting that they leave the shelter. The church, in other words, proves no respite for this metonymic torrent. At this moment, the police likewise arrive, prompting Céline's flight into the surrounding woods. After returning to the chapel once more where its gates continue to be locked, and after pleading for God's intervention accordingly, she reaches a pond in which she attempts to drown herself. In this moment, Hadewijch directly adopts the iconography invented by Bresson's most despairing work, Mouchette (1967), and repeated in the Dardenne's Rosetta. Dumont, however, provides his variation as David seizes the submerged Céline, pulling her above the surface. Whether or not it is God who has answered her prayer, Céline's earthly salvation comes thanks to the humane action of her fellow man. It is here, rather than within the protective confines of the church, that Hadewijch's figures find respite from the contemporary reality with which Dumont's film confronts its spectators. Thrown into a very dangerous world, humanity has only itself.

Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (Un prophète, 2009), from an Audriard and Thomas Bidegain screenplay, offers a similar sociological portrait of a France where its older (white) populations are being eclipsed by those of its less assimilated Islamic immigrants. In the case of Audriard's film, this dynamic is expressed through the power relationships that obtain in prison, where a young, non-practicing Muslim, Malik (Tahar Rahim), is forced by the Corsican mafia, headed by the aging César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), into murdering fellow Arab prisoner Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Hereafter, Malik is visited occasionally by his murdered brother, thus connoting the intimacy between the murdered and murderer, while also providing a schizophrenic corollary to his own position shuttling between the Islamic faith of his birth and the secular world of his white gang. A Prophet indeed lacks Hadewijch's comparative theological dimension, save for Hadewijch's distinction between a devout Islam and a Christianity that has become mere culture - its only presence in A Prophet is in the Christmas holiday, just as in Dumont's film, Christianity apart from Céline (and outside the cloister) is mummified in the well-adorned, empty church.

As the narrative progresses, César is deserted by his fellow Mediterranean inmates, who are moved to an institution closer to their native Corsica following a governmental decree. Consequently, César comes to rely on Malik increasingly as he negotiates the increasing clout of the Muslim block. Malik, however, proves exceedingly adept in his own right, as he navigates this same faction even more shrewdly, while remaining loyal to his boss. Ultimately, Malik's power comes to exceed César's, displacing the power dynamics in the prison onto the Malik-César relationship. At the film's harrowing close, Malik not only refuses to cross the yard to visit with his former master, but indeed has his underlings punch the old man in the gut as he attempts to approach. In A Prophet, political calculation takes precedent over not only loyalty, but also over moral or ethical considerations.

A Prophet accordingly represents a French translation of Martin Scorsese's underworld idiom (cf. Mean Streets, 1973; Casino, 1995), replete with a similarly protean, post-classical style. Like the former, though A Prophet does it better than any Scorsese film in more than a decade-and-a-half, Audriard combines markedly disparate techniques in what is, like the cinema of Arnaud Desplechin equally (Kings and Queen, 2004), a filmmaking notable for its variability. In distinct contrast to Hadewijch's heavily composed, patient images, A Prophet often favors documentary-inflected, jittery hand-held takes, hard cutting and subjective focalization, construed by A Prophet's variations in visual point-of-view and on a soundtrack that in pivotal moments becomes highly conventional in its scoring, while also eliminating ambient sound.

Audriard's film, further, utilizes a prosaic narrative structure that borrows heavily from the televisual long-format that represents the core of high-end American popular culture, with HBO's "The Wire" and "Oz" especially germane in this instance. A Prophet possesses many of their virtues, relying similarly on the character-development that the aforesaid procure over their long durations. In this respect, Audriard's film belongs to this new tele-visual regime, whereas Hadewijch remains very much a work of auteurist art cinema in the classical sense: Dumont's film represents the more constricted artistic communication imparted through its organic, if ever so slightly uneven construction; it suggests not only the short story that is at the medium's core, but the painting medium that signifies in similarly discrete terms. On the other hand, A Prophet maintains a greater scope, relying on its storytelling to impart its arch issues. Though it touches on the same world as Hadewijch, it does so with less immediacy and urgency. Audriard is far more detached from his nonetheless very impressive work.


Charles Lyons said...

Michael --

Any idea where I could see "Hadewijch" now? I realize it's getting a release via IFC this summer but honestly the sooner the better. Help?


Michael J. Anderson said...


I suspect your only option in this regard would be to purchase a region-2 DVD through AMAZON.FR or some other French retailer. Chances are it is un-subtitled for contractual reasons. I am running into the same issues with WILD GRASS, which I would love to see before the end of June, but honestly my French just is not up to the challenge... so June it is, unfortunately.

TripZone said...

I missed Hadewijch at a 4-session preview in Melbourne due to flooding. Still angry heh. But I DID get to see Wild Grass at our French Film Festival. Michael, not to make you feel bad, but it's simply wonderful. After The Limits of Control, and perhaps The White Ribbon, the best piece of cinema of 09.