Family. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t live with ‘em. I guess it’s no surprise how who we become will always – in some way – be tied back to who we started out as and how we were raised. There will always be some linkage between parents and children – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, etc. – and how these relationships change throughout our respective growth can be the source of immense appreciation or utter disenchantment. What brings us together may not be as strong as what drives us apart, but how we face those challenges will always show us something about our flaws and our strengths.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Hemel (played by the lovely Hannah Hoekstra) – which is Dutch for ‘Heaven’ – is a young woman just over the cusp of womanhood who’s engaged in a constant struggle to identify ‘love’ in her life. With much abandon, she flees from one sexual entanglement to the next, rarely conscious of the risks to her body or the inevitable damage to her psyche. Still, she desperately clings to Gijs (Hans Dagelet), her father – her mother passed away early, leaving him to raise him on her own. However, when it looks like Gijs is ready to move on with the new woman in his life, what realization will this force onto Hemel, and can she survive the split?
HEMEL is a character study that focuses in on a flawed father/daughter relationship. Sacha Polak directs a script penned by Helena Van Der Meulen about the sexually-charged Hemel trying to cope with her arrival into adulthood. Her affairs are quick and (essentially) meaningless, though she strives on each occasion to place meaning within each of them. What she ends up doing in the process is becoming nearly exactly what these men don’t want or need – her first suitor clings to ideals of a different body type; her second suitor prefers cuddling after lovemaking while Hemel will have nothing to do with it; and a married man wants ‘sex with detachment’ while she longs to be his soulmate. In her attempts to find happiness, she unintentional evolves into something men no longer covet; this only forces her to try even harder next time.
Eventually, Hemel is forced to face the harsh reality that the central man in her life – her father – can no longer provide her with the kind of undivided attention or affections she’s been privy to for most of her life. This rejection (of sorts) causes the young woman to even desperately test the boundaries of physical attraction to her father as she plies for more and more notice. These scenes are certainly not played out with any glamor; in fact, there’s an odd air of emotional detachment to images one would normally associate between a husband and wife as they play out with Gijs and his daughter. Neither truly understands one another, though both would claim otherwise, and the sum total of their conflict forces them further apart as happiness is only attainable when sought elsewhere.
To their credit, Hoekstra and Dagelet make the most of their moments together. There’s an undefined chemistry to what their characters feel for one another, and only two artisans entirely committed to telling this story – with Polak’s direction, of course – can pull off so much effortless affection and sublime discomfort with one another, especially given the fact that most folks might find the subject matter so very disturbing. Still, their performances make this tale not only possible but believable, and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for them in future works down the creative road.
HEMEL is produced by Circe Films, Vrijzinning Protestantse Radio Omroep (VPRO), Jaleo Films, and Bella Cohen Films. DVD distribution is being handled through Artsploitation Films. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Dutch-spoken-language film with English subtitles. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the film won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival; was nominated for ‘Best Film’ at the 2012 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema; was nominated for the New Talent Grand Pix Award at the 2012 CPH:PIX; as well as being singled out for praise at the 2012 Nederlands Film Festival and the 2013 Rembrandt Awards. As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds exceptional, and there’s some impressive cinematography at work consistently. Lastly – as is often the case – the disc is slim on special features: there are two brief (five minute) interviews, one with Ms. Hoekstra and one with Ms. Polak.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Granted, this may not be to everyone’s liking, but HEMEL was a brilliant character study examining two fundamentally flawed individuals who – despite their worst instincts – were perhaps perfect for one another for only a brief, fleeting time. The story of a father’s love for his daughter and his young girl’s exploration of her own feelings makes for solid viewing. The sex and nudity – for the record, it’s NOT incestuous – are tasteful (for the most part) as Hemel tries harder and harder to secure a place of comfort with the men she meets. As the tagline goes “sex isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” she’s a woman who only understands one form of communication, and that’s bound to lead her to some heartache.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Artsploitation provided me with an advance DVD copy of HEMEL by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.