I met with the French Director Bruno Dumont and actress Julie Sokolowski at the 2009 New York Film Festival. The pair were in town for the U.S, premiere of Dumont’s latest film, Hadewijch, which was screening for the public at the NYFF that day. Despite meeting in a very public VIP lounge at Alice Tully Hall with various luminaries milling about, the three of us (and a translator) were left alone to our conversation.
For a director best known in this country for his frank, provocative looks at sexuality and obsession, Dumont was more than patient in conversation, offering generous, thoughtful answers to a range of questions. It was my hope that we might get to the heart of Hadewijch, to uncover how Dumont created such a powerful story of religious devotion and the loss of faith, and Dumont and Sokolowski delivered. The story of a young novitiate cast out of a convent and into modern-day Paris, Hadewijch has already inspired heated conversation in the critical community and now the film, which opens theatrically on December 24th at the IFC Center—and is now available through IFC Films On Demand until March 8, 2011—is poised to challenge audiences here in the United States.
***Note: All of Dumont and Sokolowski’s answers are given through a translator.***
H2N: Thank you both for your time. Bruno, in a 2006 interview in the Hollywood Reporter you were asked about your next film and you said: “It’s already written. There’s no title yet. It’s about God, the death of God. It’s set in Paris and is in the process of financing. It’ll take two years to cast.” You were referring to Hadewijch, no?
Bruno Dumont: Yes, but in the process of completing the film, it went from being about the death of God to the love of God.
H2N: Let’s start then, by talking about the character of Céline and her love of God; it is the heart of Céline’s mysticism and also what ties her to the historical Hadewijch. What attracted you to Hadewijch’s mysticism originally and how did that inspire you to develop the character of Céline?
BD: My interest in mysticism developed from my background in philosophy; that’s my education. Obviously, philosophy is something that’s very intellectual, very conceptual and this is the basis of this visionary, this mystic, but she deals with the word; the word, however, that describes a world beyond the intellect, beyond the sensorial world. It is a vision, it is beyond language. A vision, in fact, that has a lot to do with cinema. When I’m making films, I feel that I am accessing this world that is beyond our words, so there is an element of mysticism in my films.
H2N: In the past, you’ve said that you “don’t like cinema,” in fact, you’ve said that there was “something dead about cinema” and that “real life” was more important to you. Has that changed for you? Has the mystical nature filmmaking driven you to embrace the cinema again?
BD: No, in fact I believe in cinema more than I believe in life. I am impressed by the power of cinema, by the possibilities of representation. In cinema, it is possible to represent God; it’s possible in cinema to believe in God. Through cinema, you can depict God, you can represent God, you can believe in God. In fact, cinema is so strong; it’s so poetic, so exceptional. Of course, cinema also deals with life, it discusses life and life interests me. Cinema represents this, too. So, I believe very much in the means of cinema.
H2N: You have these visionary moments that the audience is left to interpret; they’re not literally made manifest on the screen, we don’t see what your characters see. How does this reconcile with your idea of the power of cinema?
BD: I think that God is present in the film, but that we feel his presence through Céline’s desire. The film deals with the question of the invisible and the visible, and in fact Céline’s character is torn by her love of God, by her desire, and by the fact that he is so absent. It is through his absence that we feel his presence. In fact, absence is his presence and it’s why he is in fact so perfect; this is why she loves him.
H2N: Julie, how did you deal with this, this absence in the physical, tactile world of acting?
Julie Sokolowski: What allowed me to depict this was that I was able to transpose my love for a real human being into the love of God. In fact, the absence that I felt of this person, the fact that I missed this person so much, allowed me to access the absence of God and my feelings about the absence of God.
BD: There’s no conflict because it is through appearance that the sacred can manifest itself in a profane world. It is the only possible way for us to depict the sacred, to depict the invisible through the visible. What you do then is you film a pasture, you film a field, waiting for something else to appear and I’m profoundly convinced that when you film that pasture, you allow that other element, that other dimension, the opportunity to reveal itself. That’s also what happens with Julie; I present her physically, in her profane state as a human body but I know that there is much more than just a human body that arises on the screen.
H2N: In watching Hadewijch, I was immediately brought to Robert Bresson—
BD: Who? Luc Besson? [laughs]
H2N: [laughs] Well, for me, I found several references to Bresson’s work, and I don’t think that’s a problem… but especially in this idea Bresson had of spiritual lightness, the move from consciousness to unconsciousness, and the path his characters took toward that lightness, toward being open. Can you talk a little bit about Bresson and how you see his influence?
BD: I have a relationship with the work of Georges Bernanos, the French novelist who worked with Bresson [Note: Bresson adapted Bernanos’ Diary of A Country Priest and Mouchette], but I find it strange; my approach to filmmaking is the exact opposite of Bresson’s way of working. For example, the way I work with actors is completely different; I use location sound where Bresson looped everything. It’s quite strange to me to see critics and spectators constantly taking out their Bressonian toolkits to decode my films. It’s something I can’t control; I can’t stop people from doing that. I only discovered Bresson late in my life and I really don’t care about him that much. People tell me there is a reference to Mouchette in the fact that Céline tries to drown herself in the pond at the end, but I was just reading yesterday that the Beguines, the religious movement to which the real Hadewijch belonged—the nuns were drowned, so there is a reference to that as well and it’s going back much further. So, I think it is unfortunate that the imagination of so many spectators and critics begins with Bresson. It’s important to go beyond that, far beyond that, but I can’t help that in any way.
H2N: How do you feel, then, about people interpreting your films in general? My first response is always an emotional one, and then I leave the theater and go and think about the film I have seen. For me, it was Bresson, but I’ll give you another example; there have been political readings of this movie and some people have come out of Hadewijch upset about the ways in which the film, to them, seems to be anti-Islam. I’m sure we all bring our own thoughts to the films, but how do you feel about that as an artist?
BD: I think it is very important in my films to create a space for the spectator, where the spectator can insert himself, where he or she can participate in the dialogue. So, it is my work as a filmmaker to try and create that space. That’s what I do when I go to see a film; I try and take part in a dialogue. It’s my job to begin this dialogue and it is up to the spectator to take their place and finish the film with their interpretation. That’s entirely valid and that’s what I find so exhilarating about this dialogue. It’s not my place to comment on the film or to place myself above or pass judgment on the interpretation of what people see.
One person will interpret the film in the way that you just suggested, another will see something entirely different about the film, and yet the film is the same. So, it is the spectator who changes the relationship to the film and not the film that invokes this change. Again, my job is to create a cinema that allows the spectator to take their place in it. I purposely film certain scenes in such a way that they’re not finished, that they are open. This openness grants the spectator freedom, a true freedom. To me, that is what the cinema is about. You see a film, you respond with your heart and your guts and you find your truth in it. It’s not up to me to pass judgment on it, to place myself above it. On the contrary, I embrace this egalitarian relationship and dialogue.
H2N: Julie, how does this openness impact you as a character, as an actor?
BD: It is impossible for Julie to answer that because it is not up to her—
JS: This is not something that concerns me. On the contrary, what I was trying to see as the scenes were being filmed is whether or not the scene touched me. I was trying to find what the resonance was in me and express my feelings.
H2N: Bruno, can we talk about this in terms of your process then? From the beginning of the writing of the script through post-production, what steps do you take to create this space?
BD: My work consists in the contrast between what my intentions may have been at the outset and what actually comes out of those intentions. I am always focused on what happens and not on what my intentions may have been originally. In the same way, the relationship that I might have had with Hadewijch at the beginning, this figure as I imagined her, was completely different from this figure once Julie became involved. In fact, it was night and day and if you choose night, you have to recreate the night, you have to work with that element and adapt to it. You have to find that element in Julie and to embrace Julie as she is and embrace her work as well because it is not only a question of Julie’s being; she also has to work to create this character.
At the outset, there is a unique, individual balance between the human being who I am working with and the character and I can’t determine what the outcome will be; it’s about being open to that. It’s not just about Julie; it’s the same with Yassine and all of the actors I work with. I have to embrace them; I have to abandon my preconceptions and embrace who they are. I have to marry the actor to the character and I have to push them because I am not making a documentary; this is a fiction film so I am pushing them.
It’s interesting because, for example, when we started shooting, Céline’s character had a lot of dialogue, but I didn’t like how Julie said it. She told me, “I can’t read this dialogue, it’s not mine,” and when she did try to read it, it was totally false. So I told her, “Shut up, we’ll drop it,” and gradually during filming, as she gained confidence, she was able to say more and embrace the dialogue. At the very beginning of the film, Julie doesn’t know how to pray, she’s very awkward at praying, but that was extremely beautiful for her [Céline]. I say an actor is like a mechanism and I’m trying to adjust the settings on the mechanism, but it is very difficult to find the right buttons and know how to work with them.
H2N: You’ve been called a provocateur. Once the film is completed and it is out in the world, and people are dealing with it and inserting themselves in the work, the work becomes something more than image and sound on a screen. Do you feel this label of provocateur is a misnomer, that your openness is misunderstood as a provocation?
BD: I’m not at all interested in provocation, what I’m trying to deal with is astonishment. I’m not trying to provoke, I’m trying to create in the spectator a sense of astonishment. I think that people call that a provocation because that is their way of denying or rejecting the film out of hand, but in fact, in Hadewijch, Céline’s character says that “the starting point of mysticism is astonishment” and I think that the task of any artist is to create in our gaze something new, to give us back this sense of astonishment.
H2N: Can we talk about the ending of the film? I’m not going to ask you to interpret it, but I wonder if there has been a lot of misunderstanding about the final moments of the film. In my experience, in your work in general, dreams and imaginary sequences in general don’t seem to play much of a part, or if they do, they are not distinguishable from any other form in the narrative. And yet, there is an understanding among some that the final scene in this film doesn’t follow the narrative path of the rest of the film. What are your thoughts about using these techniques in your work, not how we receive them but how they work for you?
BD: It’s necessary to disarm our intelligence. The intelligence is unable to understand this mysticism, this experience. You can only approach it through feeling, through sensation. So, my position is not at all intellectual. Mysticism is not something that is intellectual; it is visionary, poetic territory from which reason is completely excluded. So, I have to disarm intelligence, to set it aside, to keep it out.
There is a ravishing at the end of Hadewijch; this is a visionary, there is a vision. There’s no explanation possible because reason has nothing at all to do with Hadewijch (Céline’s) experience at the end. Hadewijch is a flower and at the end, she blossoms in the arms of this man. Why does she blossom? I can’t answer that. I truly can’t answer that, I’m not being coy, but it is like a rose. Why does a rose have thorns? I don’t know but they have thorns—
H2N: —and he (the character of the handyman) blossoms as well, at the same time, together—
BD: Yes. The ending of the film offers a release. All of the tension that’s been built up over the course of the film finds a release in this embrace. It’s an ending that moves me very deeply when I watch it on screen.
H2N: This embrace reminds me of the climax of L’Humanité—
BD: Yes, there is a rebirth at the end of L’Humanité as well and this to me is what Hadewijch is about. God is dead and Céline is reborn in the arms of a man.
H2N: A final question. Do you believe in the idea of a “national cinema,” of a French cinema? If so, what do you see and where do you see yourself in it?
BD: I don’t have enough distance to answer, I don’t know what to say. I think you’re in a far better place to judge French cinema, you see a lot more French films than I do. I’m trapped in my own vision, there’s something autistic about my approach so I’m in no position to pass judgment on my colleagues’ work.
H2N: Bruno, Julie, thank you for speaking with me.
JS: Thank you.
BD: Thank you.
— Tom Hall