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Raven in the Rain: A Conversation with Bruno Dumont

An interview with the director about his film Hadewijch.

Above: Brunot Dumont (left) and Hadewijch's lead actress, Julie Sokolowski (right).

In Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch, Céline (Julie Sokolowski, in a compelling first turn) has taken on the name of Hadewijch, the patron saint of the convent where she has been received as novice. At the convent her self-mortification in the name of Christ is disruptive to the rules of the nunnery; her behavior perceived as evidence of vanity. As penance, she is sent back into the world of her former life in hopes that she will gain a clearer understanding of how her spiritual calling might apply to the real world. Reluctant to re-enter the bourgeois world of her Parisian diplomat father, Céline struggles with finding a way to reconcile her passion for God with her social world. She befriends two Muslim brothers Yassine and Nassir who introduce her to the dangers of religious extremism and force her to make a life-determining choice.

Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch boasted its world premiere in the Special Presentations Program at this year's Toronto International, where it was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize. Here at The Auteurs Daily, David Hudson has gathered reviews from the film's screenings at both Toronto and the NYFF.

My thanks to Stephen Lan for facilitating this interview and to Robert Gray for his interpretive assistance.


NOTEBOOK: Are you, by nature, a religious man? Or more a philosophic one?

BRUNO DUMONT: These days I am very interested in mysticism because it goes way beyond philosophy. Mysticism takes us to areas that are beyond questions of reason, beyond speech, and beyond our comprehension of the world. It takes us to an area that is very close to cinema, and I think that cinema is capable of exploring that area and expressing it. That's why, necessarily, I am attracted to mysticism. At the same time, it's a complex area. I'm not myself religious—I'm not a believer—but, I do believe in grace and the holy and the sacred. I'm interested in them as human values. I place The Bible alongside Shakespeare, for example; not as a religious work, but as a work of art. The Bible has the definite values of a work of art.

NOTEBOOK: Hadewijch stages a failing of protagonist Céline's father to provide her spiritual solace. It becomes necessary for her to seek it elsewhere. After being sent back to the world by the nuns at the convent, she comes under the influence of Nassir, a devout Muslim who becomes something of a spiritual father to her.

DUMONT: Céline's father is a politician. He's unable to follow her. But I see Nassir as being more Céline's brother in spirit than a spiritual father.

NOTEBOOK: In the scene where Nassir is counseling Céline, she asks him about innocence and he responds, "Can anyone be innocent in a world where people vote?" I'd never thought of democracy's culpability in quite that way before. I'd never wondered if democracy could afford innocence? Can you speak more to what you mean by Nassir's statement?

DUMONT: I believe in that statement. I agree with it completely. We are all responsible for everything that happens in the world. In our Western democracies, we appear to be responsible, we vote, and we completely don't care. We brush that off. Céline, however, is not like that; she's responsible. Today, our democratic societies are devoid of a sense of responsibility and that's something that has to be developed. That's why—when she goes to the Middle East with Nassir—Céline acknowledges and recognizes her responsibility and guilt.

NOTEBOOK: She weeps.

DUMONT: [Nods his head yes.]

NOTEBOOK: One of my favorite characters of Christian literature is Mary Magdalen, whose love for Jesus—and, later, the risen Christ—I've long read as the love of the Soul for Spirit, and the desire of the Soul to be wed to Spirit. Her story exemplifies for me the longing of the mystics to be—almost physically—connected with Spirit. That longing, that desire, that dalliance runs through all of your films to one degree or another; but, never as consciously as we find it here in Hadewijch. The corporeality of your films, the bodies of your actors, have inferred the incorporeal and the spiritual; but, in Hadewijch they are directly referenced.

DUMONT: What you speak of is present in so much of the writings of the mystics—the physical experience of the presence of God. It's what you find in so many accounts of the visions of mystics, this direct contact with God. Hadewijch in her writings also speaks of direct contact with the body of Christ and the pleasure she takes in his body. Mystics are able to experience the sense of infinity through their bodies. They refuse themselves food. They don't allow themselves to sleep. It's through their bodies that they're able to experience the sacred.

NOTEBOOK: The pleasures of renunciation and abstinence are multifold.

DUMONT: Oui! Abstinence, chastity, yes, very much.

NOTEBOOK: Why—at this juncture as a filmmaker—have you become specifically intrigued by the mystics? Though, admittedly, even your early films exhibit "the upward glance." At some point your characters always seem to look towards the sky for guidance or solace.

DUMONT: It's something I find enormously interesting. They're visionaries. They have access to the invisible through their gaze on externals—perhaps the sight of a pasture, a winding path, a small river—but, they access the invisible through the visible world. They know how to see. Because they know how to see, they can see what to others is invisible and interior.

NOTEBOOK: So when they look upwards, they see into the invisible world through the visible world?

DUMONT: Voila! Through their gaze, because of their gaze, because they know how to see, the visible becomes an evocation of the invisible. They are like spectators at movies.

NOTEBOOK: From a very early age I've felt that the word "through" is one of the

most beautiful words in the human language. How one sees through physical or visible objects into the invisible fascinates me. Scrying. In my training as a Mayanist, I was fond of the Mayan term il bal, which basically means "seeing instrument", an appellation that could be applied to various objects—a rock crystal, water coursing in a stream, a leaf falling from a tree, a cloud, a book, a Mayan stelae—any number of things that can help you see into the invisible world. In your case, I would say your camera lens and the physically-projected films themselves are il bals.

What distinguishes Hadewijch from your earlier films, however, is—as I mentioned earlier—Céline 's consciousness. Though in your earlier films your characters may be visionaries who glimpse into the invisible, they don't seem as conscious; their longing is not as articulated. Would you agree?

DUMONT: Yes, you're absolutely right. In this film the protagonist is conscious for the first time. There is an element of light and clarity that's not in my previous films. Hadewijch/Céline is a lighter person—"light" in the sense of illumination—and her clear gaze is able to transform the world.

NOTEBOOK: I hope to understand your film on its own terms and not read more into it than you would perhaps want me to; but, I wonder about Céline's statement that "the sweetest thing about love is its violence"? Is that a statement specifically taken from a spiritual text? What were you trying to say by that?

DUMONT: That's a literal quote from Hadewijch's writings.

NOTEBOOK: It sets up a dissonant tension between love and violence, just as there is a tension between Céline's spiritual quest and her involvement with religious fanaticism. By contrast to the politicized martyrdom of Islamic fanatics, Céline's spiritual quest seems almost anachronistic and out of touch with contemporary events, or at least hazardously susceptible to them. I could fully understand why Yassine said to her—"You're nuts."

DUMONT: I needed Yassine because he's so real. He's the only character who's in touch with reality. I needed him as someone spectators could identify with and also because—through his gaze, through what he says—he puts Céline in a certain position. He sets her up in a certain way and I needed the audience to relate to Céline in a certain way. Yassine is the only person who's "normal" in the film. Everyone else is absolutely crazy.

NOTEBOOK: [Laughs.] The character of Yassine—as well as the film itself—exhibits more humor than I've seen in your previous work. Yassine was clever. I laughed outloud when Céline clutched him and he said, "You're needing love or something?"

DUMONT: He is very funny.

NOTEBOOK: Another distinction from your previous work is Hadewijch's aspect ratio. You've set 'Scope aside to create a more contained, intimate frame?

DUMONT: The 1-66 projection ratio is best suited to the subject. When I'm determining a film's technical aspects—when I'm choosing film stock, what microphone I'm going to use, what camera, what camera lenses—it's always in terms of what I'm trying to convey. Here, I was trying to use something as humble and as close to the character as possible. This almost square frame is simple and humble. Cinemascope is far more spectacular and conveys a force that I didn't need in trying to come close to Céline. I chose something much simpler which worked better for the film, I think.

That was the same reason, for example, that I chose to mix the film in mono-sound and not use stereo because the sound stays right in the picture; it doesn't go outside the frame.

NOTEBOOK: the accordion band, the church ensemble, the sung Muslim prayer, and the use of Bach's "Passion of St. Matthew" as coda. Were you trying to show through such diverse music how it expresses the different voices of Spirit?

DUMONT: Yes. Mystics have always used music—Bach's cappella, for example—to express faith. Through music, one can obtain a glimpse of the hidden side of the soul that otherwise is difficult to express.

* * *

[The following is not for the spoiler-wary!!] I ran out of time before I could ask Dumont the burning question I was hesitant to ask, what actually happened at film's end? Was that scene after the explosion in the Paris subway? Was it a flashback before Céline was sent away from the convent? Was it some kind of dream? Is that withholding of information purposeful? This elision proves provocative and frustrating. At indieWIRE, Michael Koresky writes that "at film's end there remains a baffling opaqueness, both in terms of the director's and the characters' motivations." At Variety, Justin Chang concurs that the Parisian act of terrorism is "quickly called into question by a rain-soaked coda." At Not Coming To A Theatre Near You, Mike D'Angelo muses, "I've read at least three different interpretations of the film's perplexing coda, which makes no logical sense unless you conclude either (a) that it precedes certain other events chronologically (my initial assumption), or (b) that certain other events weren't real."

I have vacillated between these various possibilities and imagine I will do so for some time; but, today—conjuring the image of a raven hunched in the rain—I have decided it is a portent, an omen and that the scene is a flashback. What do you think?

I don’t think that the scene is a flashback. I think that is occurs after the explosion. She is kicked out of the convent for showing too much self-love. Everything she goes through is an attempt to get closer to god. According to Nassir, God shows himself through political action (the explosion) and Celine takes this up as being true (as evidenced by her going through with the bombing). Afterwards when she is at her pieta at Hadewijch, she says to god that the the price (of his manifestation) costs too much (the bombing/death). The price she paid was too high for him. So she goes to commit suicide, unconsciously commiting the ultimate act of giving up on one’s self-love. In the water, she is at god’s will. At this moment, god shows himself by saving her from death through the actions of the criminal/worker. What I think the ending means (and by reading Dumont’s views, I think I am pretty close) is that god manifests himself in body (which is what celine desires) through the benevolent actions of human beings. When she has finally given up on herself, god makes himself visible. So, the nuns were correct in a way: she had to give up on her self-love to finally encounter god. I think her tears at the end are of hapiness because she has finally received exactly what she has always wanted. The one thing I wonder about all the interpretations that I have read is that why does no one try to place the criminal/worker in a significant role. The ending shows his importance (he is also judged to be a good person, like his mother says, by saving celine). I hope to hear further from you.
‘From a very early age I’ve felt that the word “through” is one of the most beautiful words in the human language.’ I too have always thought this about the word “through”. It is very much a stand-alone word in the English language; there are no one-word synonyms that I can think of, only full-phrases can describe its action. Glad someone else agrees that word holds an odd power. Thanks for the spoiler warning. I am always excited for & want to be surprised by a new Dumont film. Great interview.
Alexander, NEH, thank you for your comments and kind encouragement. Always appreciated out here in the ether. Alexander, my first reaction to the film pretty much tracked yours in how I rationalized the ellipse; but, as time goes along, I have become even more convinced that the structure of that ellipse, Dumont’s purposeful use of it, is intended precisely to elicit multiple—even conflicting—responses. Without clear explanation, with such a rupture in reason, the film shoves you towards an uneasy realm of faith. Like yourself, I have had many thoughts concerning the role of the caretaker in this narrative, how he has been almost thrown away and rendered incidental by not being involved in the main narrative, and yet somehow in the way he (almost awkwardly) looks off to the sky when Celine embraces him after his having saved her, serves for me as a contrast between his unconscious goodness, and Celine’s conscious goodness. He’s more like a character from one of Dumont’s earlier films, inarticulate, and yet full of embodied grace. He almost seems a bit of an idiot against Celine’s spiritual quest.
Hey Alexander, I agreee with you and in my review of the film from 9/28, I argued the same as you, but for me, it all comes back to Bresson…
“Embodied grace.” That’s a perfect description of the convict/worker. He expresses love so easily and unconsciously while Celine struggles to express what she thinks is her love for God. I thought the ending (if it was indeed an ending) was very moving. If the coda occurred before the other events, it changes the meaning quite a bit. Great interview and thoughtful comments. Well done!
Thank you, James. I wish we would have had the chance to discuss the film before I conducted the interview. Tom, your write-up from the NYFF is elegant and thoughtful, especially Sontag’s precedence. I admire how you deconstruct the ellipse. If I had it to do all over again, I would have surmounted my fear of insulting Dumont by asking him what the film’s coda meant, and angled in to enquire how you constructed the ellipse. Then I might have had something definite—“Ellipse? What ellipse?”—instead of tangled theories. Further, to dismiss the perception that the Parisian bombing was not a suicide bombing lends to your argument; but, confuses me in a different direction. The sense I got was that Nassir was working towards a suicide bombing. If it was simply retaliatory terrorism—which it very well might have been—then he really is just a religious fanatical thug. Further your observation that the explosion is street-level and not within the subway is a convincing one. Perhaps we were manipulated to believe the explosion was the suicide bombing of Celine and Nassir? If not by the filmmaker directly than our religious belief systems indirectly? Perhaps the explosion had nothing to do with either Celine and Nassir? In which case, it remains a purposeful ellipse. But I’m going to put out into the ether that I will have a second opportunity to talk with Dumont, at which time you’ve given me the language to phrase the question. Thanks.
…how “he” constructed the ellipse, I mean of course….
Mr Dumont just attended a screening in front of european scriptwriters for SOURCES2, and answered afterwards the questions about the ending satisfactory. So far I heard of three unsatisfactory interpretations of the ending: 1. The flashback theory (by Mike D’Angelo): The scene after the explosion is what happens before the very first scene. The most logical explanation, but what would be the motivation for it? Everything makes boom, and before that, the Christ figure saved the heroine saved from suicide. 2. Mysticism, a dream or the epilogue in heaven. All dead, but she is forgiven, can enter heaven. Nonsense. 3. Realism. The bomb exploded, but she survived (why?), desperate and is saved by the Christ figure in the Bresson style. Cheap and illogical. Only how Dumont explained it, is satisfactory: The bomb was not dangerous, just a dummy. And finally you will only be redeemed by the physical love to a man. The abstract love is nonsense, just the physical love fulfilling.

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