After more than five speechless minutes, the very first words in Bruno Dumont’s film Hadewijch (2009) are a lengthy quote from vision six by the thirteenth century mystic Hadewijch. She was a beguine whose collection of poems, letters and visions – some of the earliest literary writings in Dutch/Flemish history – have only started to be properly appreciated since the past century. Here is the beginning of the passage, as recited by the mother superior (Brigitte Mayeux-Clerget):
And then I heard a Voice speaking to me; it was terrible and unheard-of. It spoke to me with imagery and said: ‘Behold who I am!’ And I saw him whom I sought. His Countenance revealed itself with such clarity that I recognized in it all the countenances and all the forms that ever existed and ever shall exist, wherefrom he received honor and service in all right.
Any attempt to picture the one to whom the Voice belongs is fraught with difficulties. Descriptions of the visual perception of His Countenance are marked by such deliberate inconsistencies as to make the appearance of God inconceivable in a strict sense. In the Hadewijch quote used in Dumont’s film, the vision is announced by an ‘unheard-of voice’, while His Countenance reveals itself in ‘all the forms that ever existed’. In vision one, Hadewijch describes the eyes of the Beloved as ‘marvelously unspeakable to see’ and the great beauty as rendering her ‘unable to find any comparison for it or any metaphor’. Similarly, in vision twelve Someone sits on a round disk which runs in an abyss ‘of such unheard-of depth and so dark that no horror can be compared to it’. These encounters are visual in nature, but defy the imagination.
Time and again, a vision in Hadewijch’s texts manifests itself in reaction to a ‘psychological withdrawal from self’ during liturgical feasts. As Veerle Fraeters observes in describing the well-structured pattern of the fourteen sections in Hadewijch’s Book of Visions, the feasts trigger such an intense longing to see ‘the throne of God and the countenance of the One sitting upon it’ that God gracefully takes her up ‘in the spirit’. The various visual experiences which happen to her are ‘perceived with the inner senses of sight and hearing’. This sensory perception can function as a catalyst for the transportation to another level, for which she consistently uses the fixed formula that ‘she falls out of the spirit’. She then enjoys the sight of His Countenance, but this extraordinary and ecstatic experience can only be described in terms which confront us with the inadequacy of language – unspeakable, incomparable to anything, incorporeal. The visionary experiences a mystical union with God in which seeing and hearing turn blind and mute, for this ineffable phase is one of imageless contemplation, which transcends rational comprehension.
For the present-day northern French filmmaker Bruno Dumont, the mystical texts of Hadewijch and her Book of Visions in particular, are, above all, a source of inspiration. He even claimed in an interview with Damon Smith that ‘mysticism is essentially cinematographic. It’s present in my form of expression, it’s a vision that is very rich and something that I think has a lot in common with cinema. In fact, I think that mystical experience helps me understand cinema better’. This statement may surprise us if we take Dumont’s educational background into account. He used to lecture about Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel for a few years but, despite his previous occupation, he considers medieval mysticism as superior to philosophical reflection. The special charm of mystical texts for him resides in the articulation of the inexpressible. In approaching mysticism, Dumont has said, the order of rational logic is suspended, since one enters into areas touching on ecstatic experiences. With his film-making he also hopes to ‘reach over into this other side’, to attain ‘this non-logical, non-verbal area’. For Dumont films are like incantations and spells. Cinema is a mystery, in which he as the director aims to evoke by visual means what defies representation.
In order to grasp how cinema works, Dumont recommends reading medieval texts, since they teach us that spiritual matters can only be suggested via detours, never directly. Dumont’s fascination with medieval spirituality comes explicitly to the fore in (the title of) his fifth feature, Hadewijch. This film is not an adaptation of the beguine’s writings, but it is obliquely informed by them. In this article I will read Hadewijch through the lens of Dumont’s Hadewijch by focusing upon those elements from her works which resonate in the film. Furthermore, I aim to highlight the cinematographic methods used by Dumont to suggest an analogy between mysticism and cinema, or, to put it differently, how Dumont has used Hadewijch’s texts as a functional vehicle for his own views of cinema.