Divided into chapters, the film first chronicles Hemel's (Hannah Hoekstra) many sexual conquests, then takes on a different tone as it explores her complicated relationship with her father, Gijs (Hans Dagelet). A dapper auctioneer, Gijs has dated a series of younger women since Hemel's mother's death. But when Gijs starts seeing the charming Sophie, for the first time Hemel feels that her special relationship with her father is threatened.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: It is late at night. A father awakes at the sound of his daughter’s restless sleep. Realising the trouble, he carries her to the bathroom, puts her on the toilet and waits patiently as she pees, still only half awake. It’s a sweet scene, one not unfamiliar for most parents or kids. But in Sacha Polak’s startling, moving and strange drama, this episode is freighted with a psychological dimension that confronts and confounds one’s casual expectation of what is 'sound’ and 'normal’ in a parent/child relationship. This is because this tender familial moment exists not between adult and child, but between two grown ups.
[Hemel] provides no easy answers, avoids elegant and precise motivations and makes little concession to well-worn conventions of narrative and style.
The father is Gijs (Hans Dagelet), a still good-looking and virile late 50s middle class man, a widower who works in high-end auctions and is in the habit of dating attractive younger women. The daughter is Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra) – which means Heaven in Dutch – who is 23 and who, it appears, experiments somewhat recklessly with sex in relationships that have no sense of emotional intimacy. Her emotional life, in all its unconventional contours and trouble spots, seems to exist within the boundaries of her friendship with her dad.
Indeed, in most instances here, Hemel resists bonding with her sexual consorts. She taunts them, belittles them, finding their erotic fixations tiresome or invasive. In the film’s stunning opening sequence, a very graphic and explicit lovemaking and post-coital episode, Hemel allows her lover to shave off her pubic hair, only to complain that such a concession succeeds in making her nakedness seem 'childish’. (This turns out to be ironic, since throughout Hemel affects an infantile aspect in her interactions with just about everyone.)
Later, she picks up a man in a bar. They make love. He caresses her tenderly afterward. Hemel finds the touch distasteful: 'I prefer my lovers to be like lions, get it over quickly and fall asleep," she tells him with an edge of malice. The man leaves in a huff and moments later someone smashes her front window out.
Polak has said in her statements about the film that there is nothing clinically 'wrong’ with Hemel, in a psychiatric sense (For what’s it worth, the director strongly resists a psychoanalytical reading of the film, despite the obvious Oedipal/Electra overtones.) Or, to put it another way, Hemel is behaving not on impulse or from some scary compulsion she cannot resist, but out of an act of will. She is in search of an identity she can live comfortably with.
While there’s no obligation for any viewer ever to go along with a filmmaker’s stated aims for a picture, there’s little dramatic evidence that implies Hemel is a 'damaged’ character demonised by, say, bi-polar or Asperger’s.
That’s what makes Hemel such a fascinating character and the film so powerfully hypnotic. Polak and screenwriter Helena van der Meulen have made the film, produced in Holland on a small budget, under the sign of classic Euro '60s art cinema; it provides no easy answers, avoids elegant and precise motivations and makes little concession to well-worn conventions of narrative and style.
Organised into episodes or chapters that focus on Hemel’s sexual adventures, mixed with her much less dramatic encounters with Gijs, what finally emerges as the centre of the film is a father/daughter story. Late in the film, we find that Hemel is dating an older man, a lover she finds that she can confide in willingly and with an ease she finds sweet and touching. Married to a colleague of her father’s, the man resists long-term commitment, a revelation that Hemel finds shattering.
Meanwhile, her father is showing signs of domesticity. His new lover Sophie (Rifka Lodeizen) is both substantial and stable, and when he announces to his daughter that they plan to live together, Hemel feels threatened. In the end, Hemel comes to the realisation that her relationship with her father is less a lifeline and more like an impediment. She needs a father, not a buddy.
Shot by Daniel Bouquet in widescreen 2.35.1 in bleached tones, often in close ups of such detail you can almost smell the sheets, the film’s look has a weird beauty.
Still, whatever incidental pleasures the film provides (and there’s a lot, from the smart writing to the frequent black humour) the single great cinematic element is Hoekstra’s Hemel. In this, her first feature, this inexperienced actor is simply stunning. Critics often call performances like this 'courageous’ mostly because of the copious nudity and emotionally embarrassing content. But, for me, what is so daring about Hoekstra is her seeming willingness to appear vulnerable and savage, innocent and amoral. You won’t find any sentiment here or special pleading for Hemel. She’s high maintenance and the movie is about how she comes to know that about herself in the deepest way. In its own odd manner, this is a very special and moving coming of age movie.
Monday 17 February, 1:15AM on SBS VICELAND (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Sacha Polak
Starring: Hannah Hoekstra, Hans Dagelet, Rifka Lodeizen
What's it about?
Divided into chapters, the film first chronicles Hemel's (Hoekstra) many sexual conquests, then takes on a different tone as it explores her complicated relationship with her father, Gijs (Dagelet). A dapper auctioneer, Gijs has dated a series of younger women since Hemel's mother's death. But when Gijs starts seeing the charming Sophie (Lodeizen), for the first time Hemel feels that her special relationship with her father is threatened.