Director: Bruno Dumont
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Love has subjugated me:
To me this is no surprise,
For she is strong and I am weak.
She makes me
Unfree of myself,
Continually against my will.
She does with me what she wishes;
Nothing of myself remains to me;
Formerly I was rich,
Now I am poor: everything is lost in love.
The above poem, “Love has subjugated me,” was written in the 13th century by Hadewijch of Antwerp (or Brabant), who was associated with a movement called Minnemystiek (“love mysticism”). Hadewijch carried on in the tradition of the romantic troubadours and formed a potent influence on Dutch literature. She was almost certainly a beguine—a devout lay woman of noble birth who lived in poverty and ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the community. There is evidence in her writings that she was somehow separated from her beguine companions, though the circumstances of her “exile” are unclear.
Bruno Dumont, who was born and raised in Bailleul, France, seems to have absorbed deep influences from the country just across the border from his home town—Belgium. Not only has he used Belgian Hadewijch’s name for his film and either his main character or the convent in which she is a novitiate (this is a little confused in the film), but he has also crafted a sly comedy that echoes what modern Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel incredulously thought when some said his song “Ne me quitte pas [Don’t Leave Me],” was the greatest love song of the 20th century—that it’s a song about a man who humiliates himself, not a love song at all!
Céline/Hadewijch (nonprofessional actress Julie Sokolowski), a painfully devout teenager, is in trouble with the sisters of her convent for disobeying the rules against self-injury by fasting and scourging herself. “There can be no question of you taking final vows now,” the Mother Superior (Brigitte Mayeux-Clerget) says as she sends Céline back into the world to find out who she really is. Céline walks through a wood outside the convent crying in agony and stops at a ratty-looking cage with pieces of cloth tied to the bars: a statue of a dead Jesus is reclining in the makeshift cave, peeling paint and bird shit marring his visage.
She returns to Paris and moves back into the ornate period mansion of her wealthy parents—her father (Luc-François Bouyssonie) is a minister of France. One morning, when her mother (Marie Castelain) asks her what she is going to do that day, Céline, in a laugh-inducing moment, answers, “Pray”—and then does, in all earnestness. Afterward, she goes to a café, and three Arab boys invite her over to their table. One of them, Yassine (Yassine Salime), invites her to listen to a concert on the banks of the Seine that evening, and she agrees. All the boys comment on how agreeable she is even though she doesn’t know any of them, an uncommon characteristic for a Parisian, they say. Yassine gets the idea that she’s “easy,” which we see at the completely laughable concert—the band’s frontman rocks out on an accordian (how French!)—when he tries to kiss and put his arm around Céline. She fends him off and later tells him she’s a virgin and will to stay that way the rest of her life because she is hopelessly in love with Jesus Christ.
It would be easy to get very serious about this movie because of how the plot draws Céline into the terrorist plans of Yassine’s brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis) and seems to be making a parallel between the two varieties of religious fanaticism. Nassir’s is borne of hate at what the French have done to Algeria, but when he flies Céline to a bombed-out part of his country to meet his co-conspirators, she shrinks in horror.
Céline is, in fact, a very normal teenage girl whose raging hormones are doing to her what they do to all girls her age—turned her into an erotic creature who is barely awake to her own appetites or those she stirs in others, and lost in a mist of romanticism. Just take a look at a post-pubescent fan of Twilight, and you’ll get a pretty accurate picture of the girl Sokolowski is playing. All of Dumont’s close-ups of her, reminiscent of the penetrating gaze Dreyer turned on Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, reveal ardency. But in service of what? In a cryptic conversation Céline has with Nassir after she has run tearfully out of a lesson he is giving on the meaning of the invisible in Islamic teachings, she stops short of saying that what she really wants is for Christ to become corporeal so she can fuck him. Instead, she hugs Nassir close, an action she will repeat with Yassine, and eventually with an ex-con named David (David Dewaele) who works at the convent. It is in this final hug, which occurs after David has saved her from drowning herself, that we see that she is pretending she is dead and hugging Christ as one would a lover.
I know that Céline would like me to call what she is suffering from true religious love of one’s fellow man, but I am forced to conclude that the old nuns who threw her out of the convent were right. She has fixated on Christ in a way that preadolescents try on sexuality by becoming attracted to animated characters. Although on the surface she would seem to have much in common with Hadewijch of Antwerp, her love is of a much more earthly variety.
Luis Buñuel said that romantic obsession, though painful for the obsessed one, always looks foolish from the outside. His films deftly mix the agonies and horrors of such obsessions with dark-hued comedy to create a sublime catalog of sex farces. Indeed, Dumont seems to share something in common with the perverted old master. Like Sylvia Pinal’s character in Viridiana, Céline seeks a pious life divorced from men, but when pushed by her own good intentions into an encounter with violence, she awakens from her haze.