23 October 2009
The medieval style
The other night I had the opportunity to attend a London screening of Bruno Dumont's wild new film Hadewijch. It is a movie, broadly speaking, about religion and alienation, about a young woman with a hard-on for Jesus. And since Jesus doesn't exist, this becomes kind of a problem.
Céline, a theology student and convent novice, has a single-minded ascetic intensity that frightens even the nuns. "Abstention, not martyrdom!" the mère supérieure scolds her as, desperately seeking Jesus, she refuses food and warm clothing. In time, the exasperated sisters in Christ drum the stubborn girl out, back to Paris and the outside world. Home with her prominent political family in a fabulously cavernous luxury apartment, she finds solace not with the extraordinary wealth around her, but with constant prayer and a faithful pet dog. Of this fallen world, young and beautiful Céline is clearly not. But a very modern story unfolds as she further alienates herself from her parents, falls in with a shiftless Arab Muslim boy, screams through the streets of Paris on a nicked scooter, and finds a practical, earthly vessel for her God lust--namely, terrorism. Good times.
The French director Dumont, on hand for a Q&A, claimed he wanted to make a film about religious extremism to "lower the temperature of the discussion" of the subject. If those being the loudest in that discussion were to see this film, I doubt it would have the desired effect. I can't imagine the world's devout Muslims would be thrilled; meanwhile some epithet about freedom fries would inevitably be hurled from the other side of the Channel or Atlantic. But what I took away most from Dumont's remarkable film is the distinctly medieval flavor of this terribly up-to-date story.
That is no accident, as the film takes its name--as does Céline, in the film's soaring final movement--from a 13th century mystic who wrote ecstatic poetry evoking a sublime romantic love for the Almighty, an all-consuming lover who leaves little room for more worldly biology. Céline/Hadewijch is not so much a character as a medieval abstraction. Music seems to be all that reaches past her aura of inscrutability, as she loses herself in church to a chamber ensemble playing Bach, or at a colorful accordion-punk show down by the Seine, where shirtless young rock musicians shred their own spin on Bach too.
Bach would seem an odd choice, given how he more than anyone brought music out of the ancient world with a systematic implementation of equal (or at least well) temperament. The revolutionary sounds that came with the birth of the baroque, some might argue, are the seedlings of modernity itself, the beginning of the end of a world that could make sense to Hadewijch. Through these lengthy and arresting musical interludes, Dumont emotionally locates his heroine right at the threshold between her world and ours; how the two interact--by turns comic, tender, and horrific--is what makes the film so riveting.
Hadewijch the film is naturalistic in style, proceeding from a realistic origin even as Hadewijch the girl undergoes her improbable transformation. But, like a lot of films I like, it is not realistic as such. If it were, Céline/Hadewijch would not be so lonely. In our world, the medieval view in fact has considerable currency. To return to the musical heart of Dumont's presentation, it's worth noting that classical music nowadays has a pretty ambivalent relationship with the equally tempered tuning system that ushered in the past 200 years of all kinds of western music and rationality. Last year Ross W. Duffin published How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony to acclaim and, for a book on music theory, eyebrow-raising commercial reception. San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, probably the most commercially popular classical string quartet ever, are known to mix and match their repertoire with medieval early music and contemporary composers like Arvo Pärt, noting their formal affinities. The medieval style in cultural life may be a minority pursuit, but it is a potent one. I wouldn't say that listening to too much experimental contemporary music would make you want to start blowing shit up. (Although the snarky may be inclined to recall it was Stockhausen who called 9/11 "the biggest work of art there has ever been.") I just think Dumont would agree that Hadewijch--beautiful, unknowable and a little bit dangerous--is not alone.