The Sparse Means of a Medium, Abundant at Birth
The one remaining question is: why does Dumont consider the visual references in Hadewijch’s text as typically cinematographic? At first sight, the beguine’s exuberant writing style, filled with intense emotions such as burning desire, madness of love, engulfment and rapture, seems antithetical to the film’s cold approach, delaying any emotion. By way of conclusion I believe that this apparent contrast is predominantly due to a difference between a textual medium and an audiovisual medium.
According to Schrader, Bresson’s films bear a closer resemblance to Byzantine portraits than to anything from the history of film up to that point. The pictures in Byzantine art were fairly simple compositions with one focal point to give the impression that they were manufactured without human intervention, ‘made without hands’. The face of such an icon, Schrader notes, was always non-expressive, ‘because God himself was beyond all expression’. Primitive techniques are privileged since the transcendental style in art requires, as Schrader puts it, that ‘sparse means’ reign over ‘abundant means’. The latter are sensual, emotional, humanistic and individualistic, and are meant to inspire sympathy. Sparse means are cold, formalistic and hieratic, and their goal is to encourage respect. The distinction is of interest when reflecting on the nature of cinema, since Schrader argues that this medium was ‘abundant at birth’. Film is expected to grant the viewer immediate gratification: as a medium of mechanical reproduction, cinema is deemed suitable to satisfy the ‘obsession with realism’, as the famous French critic André Bazin called it. In addition, film can fulfill the desire for spectacular scenery and events as well as produce instant empathy. Both popular and classic cinema answer these needs and, remarkably, the religious film is the genre par excellence that overuses the abundant artistic means. A film like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) is spectacular to the highest degree in depicting, through the camera, any possible ‘miraculous event’, as if to say: See it, and you will be inspired by faith. Transcendental style in film takes the opposite direction – and to jump on the bandwagon of an elitist distinction: here the filmic (popular/classic) is converted into the cinematographic (artistic/stylistic). This style has to work against the abundant means as the supposed ‘essence’ of the medium. Cinematography can have a ‘spiritual quality’, Schrader contends, when the sparse means supersede the abundant ones. That is, when a cold stylization dominates the imitative and inherently ‘realistic’ techniques of film. The flatter the film images become and the more enigmatic the shot transitions are – in the last half hour of Hadewijch, the editing pattern is particularly elliptical – the more cinema explores the ‘limit of the unexpressive’.
The emotional effect of an expressive film of abundant means, full of passionate characters, does not last long – it is exhausted as soon as the film is over, Sontag argues. Only an unexpressive film, purged of rational and psychological motivations, can seriously affect the viewer, and ideally bring about a mesmerizing experience – just like the viewer may be spellbound by merely watching a non-expressive Byzantine portrait, because its primitivism might suggest that its icon was formed through miraculous contact with a higher being. Likewise, the transcendental style in film will, thanks to the change from the abundance of the medium into sparse means, ‘set the viewer in motion’. Since such a film offers suggestions rather than visual proof, opaqueness rather than transparency, puzzles rather than bringing understanding, the final shot of stasis will ideally invite the viewer to keep going, ‘moving deeper and deeper, one might say, into the image’, to the point of mesmerism.
Unlike the abundant cinema, literature/poetry as a mere textual medium is to be situated on the side of sparse means. Hadewijch, however, works against this sparseness by exploring the abundant possibilities of language and uses emotionally charged terms throughout her poems, letters and visions. Especially in her visions, the main source of inspiration for Dumont, she recalls ecstatic experiences by way of the inner sense of sight and hearing, but a transition to a non-cognitive and ineffable union with Minne, marked by the formula that she ‘falls out of the spirit’, occurs five times. This transition definitely borders on inexpressibility. As such, it is equivalent to the transcendental style in cinema which only articulates the inexpressible in an extremely implicit manner.
On a thematic level, Dumont translates mysticism into a present-day context of fundamental beliefs by staging an encounter between an ascetic virgin and a radical Muslim. He appropriates Hadewijch’s violent longing for God as the Beloved to explore its minimal distinction from Nassir’s notion of God as the Almighty Judge, used to justify violent action. Obviously, this distinction is significant, but, since the bombing itself is hardly emphasized, Hadewijch seems above all to defeat any easy categorisations. Hadewijch’s texts are rewritten in order to suggest a possible intertwinement of religion and violence in the name of politics. The texts are appropriated so as to explore a consistent fascination of Dumont: can presumed ‘goodness’ be distinguished from an over-zealous struggle for a cause? In fact, the film subjects the viewer to a mental experiment: How do we value the (‘evil’) position of radical Islam if we come to realise its close affinities with a (‘good’) mystic’s ascetic lifestyle?
On a stylistic level, Dumont and Hadewijch can be termed ‘soulmates’ in the light of their attempts to articulate the inexpressible. Dumont’s unrelenting quest for approaching the inexpressible makes mysticism a guiding principle for his vision of cinema. It should be noted, however, that a director uses his medium differently from a writer and it is this difference that constitutes the leeway between poetic mysticism and a transcendental film style. Hadewijch injects her texts with abundant means – lyrical expressions full of passion, resulting into an ineffable union – to counter the sparseness of literature. Conversely, Dumont injects his cinema with sparse means – coldly framed images to withhold psychologically motivated expressions of emotions – as an antidote to cinema as an abundant means.