Today I gave myself a little treat away from the coalface of work and, just for pleasure, attended an afternoon preview screening of the new movie by Bruno Dumont, whom I tend to think of as my favourite contemporary filmmaker.
One of my fondest film-related keepsaves is a postcard Dumont sent me back in 1999 after I'd failed in a fan-letter effort to entice him to attend that year's Edinburgh Film Festival. (I was at that time the curator of festival retrospectives - in 1999 we were honouring Robert Bresson - and I also did a bit of programming of the main selection, to which I had been thrilled to add Dumont's L'Humanite.) Basically, though he regretfully had other plans that summer, Dumont seemed to appreciate my obvious regard for his stuff, a fact of which I was most glad. But the real added frisson for me was the image on the postcard itself - a soaringly boring flat landscape which I (rightly or wrong) took to depict Bailleul, the town in Flanders where Dumont was born and later made his first two features, La Vie de Jesus and L'Humanite.
What, then, of Hadewijch? What can I say? Well, nobody does it better. But these days, really, nobody else does it. Dumont is assuredly not a religious man, and yet his work is so staunchly anti-psychological in its construction of character and drama, and visually (like the films of his beloved Bresson) so much more reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics than of common-or-garden 'motion pictures' that one tends to reach for the language of the spiritual in discussing him; and this time he has helped us out by making a film about a modern-day teenage Christian mystic, a bourgeois girl from a Parisian political family who elects to scorn delights and live laborious days in the manner of the grand old hymn:
O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
has a wondrous attraction for me;
for the dear Lamb of God left his glory above
to bear it to dark Calvary.
Of course, it's not as simple as that; and I can't begin to explain why. I wasn't always riveted by Hadewijch, but at the times that I was, my main feeling, once again, was 'God, I love this filmmaker.'
A quick word on Dumont and Bresson. Dumont has always made plain his regard for the master, and clearly favours some similar techniques. Yet certain critics who imagine they know better have always used this as a stick with which to beat him. It beggars belief that any viewer who has truly loved the films of Bresson could 'make the best the enemy of the good' and so fail to admire the manner in which Dumont has adopted Bressonian traits (the flattened image, the wilful ellipsis, the 'anti-psychological' drama, the imperative of editorial rhythm, the drilling of performers or 'models') to his very own ends. Then again, there's a whole strain of contemporary commentators on film who take Bresson semi-seriously just like they were taught to, and yet roll their eyes over Dumont; had those same scribblers been around when Le Proces de Jeanne d'Arc or Une Femme Douce or Lancelot du Lac came out and stood in need of support, then you can bet Bresson would have had to whistle for it.
If Bresson obtruded like bones through the flesh of Dumont's (probably over-feted) debut La Vie de Jesus, that influence has been more thoroughly assimilated and built upon since. Admittedly Hadewijch has distinct shades of Mouchette and even Bresson's own debut Les Anges du Peche. This, though, is no mere imitation by Dumont, but – to borrow a term from George Steiner – an 'answering', one that reminds us that the best scrutiny of art is by sympathetic fellow artists. ‘Cruelly, perhaps’, wrote Steiner in Real Presences (1989), ‘it does seem to be the case that aesthetic criticism is worth having only, or principally, where it is of a mastery of answering form comparable to its object.’
This is, of course, an argument on the margins of le cinema. Dumont is the very model of a 'festival filmmaker', an enigma to larger paying audiences; but if it is his lot in life to be adored only by Cannes juries composed of his foremost fellow professionals, then one imagines he could settle for that distinction.