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Thinking Contextually in the Existential Whodunit

Hadewijch, dir. Bruno Dumont, opening 2010, IFC Films   

The White Ribbon, dir. Michael Haneke, opening limited U.S. release, December 30, 2009

I recently wrote on Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and much of what I wondered about was the maker’s intention. Specifically, what was von Trier’s choice and what was a mistake? I loved the film and found it quite powerful, however, I am convinced that there are several instances, in the final third of the film especially, that create contradictions and were most likely mistakes, possibly due to von Trier’s alleged unstable mental state. Or perhaps they were meant to be representative of said mental state.

A few weeks after seeing Antichrist, I saw Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, at the New York Film Festival. When I watch films of quality, I often wonder about intentions and mistakes. These considerations are most important regarding films rich in ambiguity.

Hadewijch is not great, it’s not Dumont’s best film, but it is still made by a filmmaker who knows what he wants and has ample skill to achieve it. As for whether The White Ribbon is Haneke’s best film—it was created by an artist and craftsman who knows how to mold art and craft together as well as anyone else in the world, and who is at the top of his game.

Both Dumont’s and Haneke’s canon feature a lot of aboutness. Everything means something. When Haneke shows a door but leaves us to listen to the action going on behind it, this is a calculated decision made for the sake of formal technique to effect the audience in a specific way. It is not a gimmick. How Dumont’s characters orgasm or watch The Jerry Springer Show speaks to ideas outside of the characters and possibly of the filmmaker’s personal beliefs, feelings, and philosophies. These are films and filmmakers that support the auteur theory. Nothing is an accident, and everything said is being said by the director.


In Hadewijch, a guy (Henri Cretel), who works at our protagonist’s church and gets a lot of close-ups, is a carpenter—and he’s framed on a ladder reaching out to grab two things at once, thus arms outstretched—and he has those angular cheek bones—it’s no accident. It’s a Jesus reference.

So as they say in that miscarriage entitled Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Watching a Dumont or Haneke film is a different exercise. A good way to summarize is the difference between Tribeca Film Festival, where most of the audience are on their Blackberrys and iPhones the entire time, and the New York Film Festival, where somebody yelled at my grandmother for having her feet on the chair in front of her during the schmaltz-fest that was the Rivette film. Be they obnoxious psychologists with Upper West Side apartments and Upper East Side offices with kids at fancy private schools, you must give them credit for their devotion as viewers. These are not easy films to watch and much, much, much harder to make.

<i>The White Ribbon.</i>
The White Ribbon.

After three viewings of The White Ribbon, I’m taking this as mistake-free filmmaking. When I say mistake-free, I mean what’s there is what Haneke intended, and we need not fear reading into it. I read this film at diegetic face value. When there’s a question of subjectivity during the perverse and unsettling homicide of a bird, suspension of disbelief is not what Haneke asks of us. The film is entirely recounted by one of the characters. It would have been impossible for that character to have any knowledge of this pivotal event, so this scene exists as a statement about that character’s emotional bias and reliability, and his worth as a storyteller. Instead of telling us something about the subject of the scene, this instead outs the teller as an unreliable narrator.

The White Ribbon is in many ways a whodunit? This is not like Clue, where we piece together the mystery from red herrings, close-ups, foreshadowing, unexplainable coincidences, etc. This film is a mystery whose solution is only revealed in formal analysis of the film. Specifically, the question of intention vs. mistake remains relevant here, at the core of the proverbial who actually dunit. It’s impossible and pointless to identify the perpetrator or perpetrators of the various local atrocities Haneke presents simply by going through the evidence in the narrative.

I’m not going to get into my solution to the riddles of the film, but feel free to get in touch with me if you’ve seen it and want to know. But here’s one point of face: in Haneke’s Q&A, he said,“I know who committed each of the crimes.” Interpret as you will.

The White Ribbon, despite being more complex, seems easier to find a satisfactory explanation for than Dumont’s Hadewijch. Thinking about the latter, I struggle to reconcile completely polarized interpretations. Many elements appear to be quite on-the-nose. Dumont has spoken of other films of his, especially L’Humanité, as detective stories at heart. Hadewijch isn’t quite that, but we’re still left without clear-cut answers.

Dumont always deals with big subjects. Here, religion and ideology take main billing, with the undercard being how they lead to violence, Dumont’s go-to theme. In Hadewijch the puzzle at least appears easier to decipher. The religious discussion is pretty clear. Dumont’s been accused many times of presenting characters as archetypes. Dumont does his best Robert Bresson imitation with the formation of Celine (Julie Sokolowski), the semi-eponymous protagonist. With Bressonian skill and restraint, Dumont creates one of his most fleshed out, and Balthazar-esque (see: Au Hasard Balthazar) characters. Because Celine remains mute, drifts from event to event, affects more than she’s affected, she’s in fact more like the character of Balthazar, himself.

The rest of the characters are all more archetypal, almost verging on caricature. They’re bizarrely obvious. The construction worker represents Jesus. An Arab boy interested in Celine represents the normal adolescent and secular desires that Celine has rejected. His older brother represents devout and dangerous ideology. Celine’s mother represents passivity, self-involvement, aloofness, absentee companionship, influence, and parenting. Celine’s father occupies the opposite end of the gender spectrum, being domineering and chauvinistic, but resulting in the same issues.

The action is often on-the-nose as well. Specifically the ending. It reminded me of Apocalypto, with catharsis occurring as the protagonist rises out of water. Here, Christ, or his embodiment, literally pulls Celine forth, thus metaphorically baptizing her, while also playing deus ex machina and saving her from emotional despair and a suicidal drowning.

Could this really be Dumont’s portrait of how the neglect of a rich girl causes her to crave ideology enough that she grabs hold of whichever one is in front of her, only to tire of it when it does not miraculously cure her emotional ills and answer her yearning questions, until she finds the personification of all of these in flesh, an actual physical being she can focus her passions upon? That makes Hadewijch basically a Judee Sill biopic, right?

I love Bruno Dumont. Wanting to find greater meaning in Hadewijch throughout, I wondered whether it was a non-linear narrative. Some was real, some was not. The third act came before the first and second, which were played together in chronological order. Thus, the diegetic story would end with Celine actually dying in her climactic suicide bombing at the end of act two.

Then I think about Dumont’s past work. Back to Haneke, and the analysis of the Teacher as unreliable narrator. Haneke often gives us characters with ulterior motives. He based an entire movie on such characters and the themes of trust, with a world full of unreliable narrators—Time of the Wolf. Caché was a huge puzzle, whose end credits coda forced us to painfully dwell on the integrity of children, a debate whose solution delineates the meaning of the film and resolution of all the film’s events.

The Teacher and storyteller of The White Ribbon and the way he leaves us feeling about the children is consistent with past Haneke work. The above superficial summary of Hadewijch definitely remains consistent with Dumont’s previous work as well. But then there are von Trier-like inconsistencies. Why does Dumont show us Celine naked? I would never imagine her walking around naked, even in private, nor sleeping in the buff. Could this be the provocateur side of Dumont coming out, needing a little sexual energy in an otherwise sex-less film? Dumont has also never used non-linear narrative, nor dream or fantasy sequences. Despite his films living deeply in metaphor, the action remains realistic. If we are to take the events of Hadewijch as in chronological order, and without any touches of magical realism or surrealism, then why doesn’t Celine die in the bombing?

Nobody I’ve spoken to about the film has an explanation for that. 


Sean Glass

SEAN GLASS has written—or been allowed to publish—only 1/3 as many words as he wanted.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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