Top positive review
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on 25 April 2015
Having now seen the seven features that Bruno Dumont has made to date and having loved all but ‘Twentynine Palms ’, I want to say something about this fascinating, unique and influential maverick. A review for ‘Hadewijch’ is the best place to do so, because it is the most accessible of his films so far and the most topical in the current climate of jihadist terror.
Dumont’s trademark visual style has become so influential that it is now prevalent, if not trendy, in the work of young filmmakers worldwide. This approach, in which the camera holds it position for a relatively long period of time, meditatively capturing so a carefully composed image, has successfully challenged a key convention of cinema. In the documentary ‘I am So, So’, Krzysztof Kieslowski explains that the maximum length for a still shot should not exceed 15 seconds, so as to keep the viewer’s attention and to maintain the flow of a story, using the example of a sugar cube in a coffee cup from ‘Trois Couleurs: Bleu’. In striking contrast, Dumont captures much of his movies in still takes that are minutes long, the effect of which is a deeper engagement with the characters of a story and their surroundings, at a pace as realistic as life itself. A typical example of this is the opening sequence of ‘Hadewijch‘, where a church under restoration is held in a long view for several minutes, allowing the audience to explore the setting in audiovisual detail. Equally lengthy, static captures of Julie Sokolowski’s face elsewhere in the film facilitate a deeper understanding of her character and emotional state. In addition to its engrossing impact on the audience, this visual approach offers practical benefits in simplifying a production to its core essentials, thereby making substantial savings on the budget, and that is essentially the reason why Dumont’s visual technique is appealing to independent, low-budget filmmakers the world over.
Challenging the conventions is what Dumont is all about, his methodology for instigating a film being an intriguing insight into that defiance. Instead of developing a script, he begins a movie by writing a full-blown story all on his own, like a fiction writer does. Once the story is complete, he then searches for locations and novices to play the characters, again all on his own. At this stage, the characteristics of the chosen cast and the locations help him amend the story accordingly and develop a filmable script. Then and only then does he seek financing for the project. Even then, Dumont does not rely on the conventional ways of securing funding. He instead deploys his loyal producer duo to seek financiers, who are prepared to risk investing in a project over which they would have little or no control. This hard-fought autonomy allows Dumont to realise his movies in the way he sees fit, without interference and with integrity, the outcome of which is an outstanding portfolio of films that are not just unique, but are groundbreaking in that they expand the horizons of cinema.
Casting non-professionals for his roles is one of Dumont‘s masterstrokes, an actor never appearing more than once in his films, except for the late David Dewaele who deservedly gets two recalls. In the case of ‘Hadewijch‘, Dumont had discovered Julie Sokolowski, but had to wait a year or so before she reluctantly agreed and was available. The reason for that insistence becomes abundantly clear, when we experience her captivating performance as Céline, an astounding achievement for a novice.
Simplicity of storytelling is the other virtue in Dumont’s work. His stories are usually linear and uncluttered, but profound in the character development, largely through visual means. There is one idiosyncrasy that repeats across his movies. That is the way he depicts sex, quite intentionally as a loveless, mechanical and often brutal act, expressed in an emotionless manner. While I find this particularly disturbing, it is an integral part of Dumont’s realism, where objectivity relentlessly challenges our notions of romanticism.
‘Hadewijch‘ is my favourite so far amongst Dumont’s films. Uncomplicated, but potent, probing and demanding in its emotional and spiritual depth, this is the kind of movie that haunts the mind long after the credits roll out. Through exceptional performances from a non-professional cast, the film poses universal questions about the role of religion in the contemporary society, the answers to which must be found before we sleepwalk into another world war!