Enthusiasm is to be expected from a postulant nun, but there are worries about Hadewijch (Julie Sokolowski). Fingers knotted around her crucifix, surrendering her starvation diet of bread crusts to the sparrows, practicing self-mortification (unseen) — such single-minded ardency draws the disapproval of the mother superior, who calls the girl "a caricature of a nun" and sends her out to rediscover herself in the world.
With his great capacity for translating environment to the screen, writer-director Bruno Dumont shows a quietly crumbling European Christianity in wintertime, of empty seats in houses of worship held together with scaffolding. From her damp, peeling cloister, Hadewijch re-emerges under her old name, Céline. A virgin at 20, she still addresses Christ like an absent lover in prayer even once returned to her family's palatial Paris apartment, kept in full Louis Quinze polish by her cabinet-member father.
Would such parents not medicate their daughter away from rapture? Dumont doesn't care to make Céline believable as a well-brought-up 21st-century student of theology, just as the Flemish painters he admires never hesitated to populate a crucifixion scene with 16th-century drifters and burghers. (Dumont's 1997 debut, set in very contemporary France, was titled Life of Jesus, after all.)
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With a guilelessness that characterizes her every move, Céline lets herself be chatted up in a café by Yassine (Yassine Salihine), a weasely banlieue teenager who's disarmed by her receptivity. From diametrically opposite worlds, they connect through their shared indifference to life — Yassine's shows when he plows through traffic on stolen mopeds, Céline's in saving herself for Christ, excluding physical intimacy with mortal man (unfortunately for Yassine, whose motives are much the same as any hormonal teenage boy).
Told with brusque ellipsis and unusually expressive close-ups — Sokolowski is as vivid as a hunted animal in her throes — the tale of Céline exploring the outside world is impregnated with the anxious sense of waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Teasing at length the viewer's protective instinct toward Céline, who has no sense of self-preservation of her own, the film eventually jerks a hard turn, reminding us that we should fear innocence as much as fear for it. Céline drifts toward Yassine's older brother, Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who leads curiously clandestine Quran discussions in the back of a kebab shop. Her ardor discouraged by her mother church, Céline doesn't convert per se, but she listens closely when Nassir's calm theological discussions reach struggle — la lutte, jihad — something palpable that might bring her palpably closer to God.
Dumont shows Céline as a victim of her fixation on the invisible, thwarted in trying to reconcile bodily need and otherworldly want. With Hadewijch, he endorses something like the Dardenne brothers' rugged, squalid secular humanism, offering the barrier-breaking embrace as vague alternative to despair, church or capital. This philosophical line is followed into an abrupt, uncoordinated salvation scene — but not even that lapse can dispel the lingering effect of the perturbing, harsh images that preceded it.
HADEWIJCH | May 6-7, 7:30 p.m. | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org