Seeing provocative French writer-director Bruno (‘La Vie de Jésus’, ‘Flanders’) Dumont’s name on a film lets you know you’re in for one hell of a serious movie. So it is with his latest, named after a thirteenth-century mystic poet, which deals with the spiritual anguish of a poor little rich girl who is rejected by a convent and falls under the influence of Islamic Lebanese immigrants. The girl – called Céline by her Parisian parents but Hadewijch by a fellow monastery novitiate – is played by non-professional actress Julie Sokolowski who, with her eyes raised, can repeat the feat made famous by the silent actress Falconetti of making spiritual anguish look uncannily identical to sexual ecstasy.
Whatever other professional failings Sokolowski may have, she makes palpable the suffering and vulnerability of this ardent, if disappointed, lover of Christ. Likewise Yassine Salime (as Yassine, the boyfriend who can’t understand her refusal of the pleasures of the flesh) and Karl Sarafidis (as Yassine’s fundamentalist Islamic teacher brother) offer satisfyingly low-key performances. ‘We all have a purpose,’ Yassine says to Céline at one point, but Dumont prefers to keep his own mysterious; watching his admittedly assuredly directed films of spiritual enquiry is akin to being given a series of pointless tests by a faithless esoteric religious master, although he does offer some sort of shot at redemption by quoting the ending of Robert Bresson’s ‘Mouchette’. Perhaps it’s a matter of trust; you either go with Dumont’s arrogant series of conundrums and paradoxes or – as I do – you see them as mere meaningless ‘effects’ with little rhyme and no reason.