Madeleine Davies

Religious melancholy in the 4th arrondissement

In Uncategorized on August 25, 2018 at 5:22 pm


Hadewijch is a French film about religious extremism in which the central protagonist is a tow-headed teenage novice.

We see her on her knees in her spartan convent bedroom, hands pressed together in prayer, a crucifix both set before her eyes and wrapped between her fingers on a chain. She appears both devout and somewhat self-conscious. There’s something practised and performative about her prayers, despite the fact that she’s alone.

She refuses to eat at breakfast and feeds her bread to the birds, shivering in the winter sun.

“You’re a caricature of a nun,” an older Sister tells her. “God isn’t there.”

This diagnosis, made early on, is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. We are given to understand that the nuns are wise to fanaticism – that they have seen it before and can distinguish it from piety.

“Abstinence not martyrdom,” one Sister instructs Hadewijch, gently.

“She is attached to this behaviour and I believe it testifies to a degree of self-love”, the Mother Superior rules. “For her own good, she must return to the world.”

The world that Hadewijch – now Céline – re-enters to is a privileged one. The daughter of a minister, she lives in a baroque apartment on the Île St Louis, full of heavy, polished woods lit by enormous chandeliers. The “gilded cage” trope is none too subtly drawn, down to the presence of a languid, absent mother. It’s a nod, too, to the protagonist’s lineage as a novice drawn from the ranks of the elite. Whether she would have been permitted to leave this world, and presumably an expensive education, to enter a nearby convent is one of a number of nagging questions left answered by the film.

There are moments when it seems that she can be re-integrated into the “everyday life” prescribed by the Sisters. Before long, she is dancing by the Seine to a quartet of manic, bare-chested musicians, and riding pillion on a motor-bike – a scene straight out of Nouvelle Vague cinema. Her dolorous, slightly vacant face is transformed in conversation with three young men in a cafe. They want to know if she likes to laugh, whether she listens to music. “You’re happy to be alive?”

But angst has Céline in its grip. Through conversations with two brothers – Muslims who live in the “projects” – we learn that she loves Christ (“He made me understand what Love was”) but is tormented by his absence. Despite the intensity of her devotions, her denial of the flesh, she cannot feel Him.

Some critics have described this film as tedious, even arrogant, and I can see why. There is a listlessness to the central performance that grows increasingly annoying – but perhaps that is the intent. Are the truly devout an irritant to those who live on a more mundane plane?

Perhaps it’s a question of authenticity. There are suggestions that Céline is self-consciously imitating the melancholy articulated by religious women of centuries past, whose writings survive. Her appearance – always in blue, face framed by a hood or wide headband – seems to be modelled on Our Lady of Sorrows. And sometimes, when she’s articulating her distress, is it difficult to tell whether she is rehearsing a speech she’s practised, or lifted from elsewhere. There’s something studied, enervating, in the set speeches she delivers.

Some might pathologise her melancholy, diagnosing clinical depression or the unease of a young woman entering adulthood.

“I can’t stand anyone else looking at me,” she confides in the elder brother. “Other than Christ.”

But perhaps, the film suggests, she is simply the descendant of the female Saints and mystics who professed their passion for Christ, often in erotic terms. They, too, were called “crazy”.

“Even that which I could say of it would be incomprehensible to all who hadn’t confessed this love by means of acts of passion and who were not known by Love,” wrote Hadewijch of 13th-century Holland, who described a desire to “consummate my Lover completely”.

“He has come to me. Often,” explains Hadewijch of 21st-century Paris. “He made me understand what Love was.”

There are parallels, too, in Céline’s readiness to leave her seat of privilege for the high rise tenement tower where the brothers, Yacine and Nassir, live. Perhaps she belongs to those saints who eschewed their high birth for a life among the poor? (or perhaps, as one critic put it, she’s another “poor little rich girl”).

Towards the end, the film takes a surprising turn, a meeting of fanatical minds resulting in a trip to the Middle East and an existential pledge to serve God through “struggle”. It’s an unlikely development, but does raise interesting questions about the boundary or relationship between extreme piety and violence. It’s an implicit rejection of the theory that religion has nothing to do with “religious violence”.

In the end, it is the younger, less devout brother, who seems to have best grasped the truth enunciated at the Monastery: that “God is here” – present in the world. There are hints of this, too, in the joyful performance of a Bach composition by a string quartet in Saint-Louis-en-l’Île Church, contrasted with Céline’s fervent prayers at an altar.

“There is no need, in order to move closer to God, to be cut off from the world,” as the Mother Superior puts it. How to treat those who have cut themselves adrift, is a question left answered.


I watched Hadewijch, directed by Bruno Dumont, on Curzon Home Cinema. It’s part of the “God’s Angry Men” collection


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