Sacha Polak’s debut feature is a frank and explicit look at carnal desire that is told from a distinctly female perspective. She paints an erotically charged portrait of a woman whose casual sexual encounters mask a loneliness and a craving for intimacy. Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra) is a young woman who drifts through a series of anonymous one-night stands and seems only close to her father. When he finds himself a girlfriend, Hemel’s jealousy puts her on the emotional edge. An emotionally and physically raw study of sexuality that is nothing less than mesmerizing.
eyelights: the openness of the father-daughter relationship. its exploration of intimacy.
eyesores: Hemel’s initial attitude about sex and intimacy.
‘Hemel’ is a motion picture that explores a young woman’s struggle with sex and intimacy. Hemel (or “Heaven”) has been raised by her father, Gijs; her mother died soon after her birth, and Gijs took on his parental duties with the utmost devotion, taking Hemel everywhere with him, even to work. They have formed an extremely close bond, but this bond is confusing for Hemel as she begins to explore her own sexuality.
The problem is that her connection with her father is so tight, so intimate, that she doesn’t need anything from any other men in her life. What she wants from them, ultimately, is sex, with no strings attached. To do this, she boldly -and crudely- approaches them in bars, picks up unavailable men, and pushes away anyone who is too affectionate or romantic. She is not sexy or provocative in a typically feminine way.
In many ways, she is the female equivalent of many young men, she is very direct, unsubtle, she pees standing up, talks only about sex, relates to others only in terms of their sexuality, and puts up a wall to protect herself emotionally; she is unreachable, and, for now, this suits her fine: she happily moves on from one man to the next, enjoying her life and her experiences.
Things don’t go so well when Gijs unexpectedly falls in love, however. Although he’s been in many relationships before, they never seemed threatening to Hemel; she felt secure in the knowledge that her bond was stronger than the competition’s. Now, however, Gijs invites his new girlfriend to move in with him; Hemel feels pushed away. Her world is shaken: what will she do without the assured intimacy of her relationship with her father?
Thankfully, ‘Hemel’ isn’t a self-destructive journey like that of ‘Klip‘ or ‘Christiane F’. It is an exploration of a character, by the viewer and by the protagonist herself; it’s only as Hemel discovers new parts of herself that she is unveiled to us. If anything, it’s a journey of self-discovery of sorts, with her closed emotional state being opened up slightly; the film ends with a beginning.
What’s great is that ‘Hemel’ is not hopeless or grim, even as it isn’t saccharine or mindlessly optimistic. It also tends to be objective, not subjective: it doesn’t provide answers, or excuses, nor does it judge its characters’ behaviour. It merely observes a young woman, on the cusp of a new inner life, who is beginning to tap into her emotions and learning about her true needs.
The lead, Hannah Hoekstra, reminded me of Emma Watson a little bit, being waifish and with a similar morphology. Her eyes shared some similarity with Anne Hathaway’s, but otherwise she could pass as the Dutch equivalent to Watson. She is not entirely convincing to me, but she pulled off the more playful and light touches rather well, making her alluring enough to explain her success with men.
The father, Gijs, is played by Hans Dagelet a veteran Dutch actor who reminded me in some ways to a subtler, older Tony Curtis. In his hands, Gijs was somewhat inscrutable, emotionally distant, even though he had an extremely close and open relationship with his daughter; one always gets the impression that he’s on his guard, even at his most intimate, that he won’t let himself be fully revealed.
Even so, I believe that the heart of the film is Hemel and Gijs’ relationship. There is much warmth there, and although both seem slightly emotionally hobbled, they are tender with each other, share much, are open with each other, can talk frankly about sex, and even be naked around each other. It kind of reminded me of ‘Say Anything…‘, but without the eventual betrayal.
One of the touches that I quite enjoyed in ‘Hemel’, was the use of music to translate the emotional awakening that Hemel is undergoing. It’s a subtle thing: there is a gentle bleeping, accompanied by the strumming of a guitar, that starts recurring as the film progresses – indicating that she is connecting with her deeper self, that she is feeling emotion in those moments. It doesn’t take centre stage, remaining only symbolic.
I rather enjoyed ‘Hemel’. It’s a coming-of-age story in a similar vein as ‘Lie with Me‘ and ‘Klip’, without the ongoing sense of hopelessness. Personally, I enjoyed watching Hemel learn to reach inside, as much as I loved seeing how gender-bending she was in the beginning. To me, though, her relationship with her father remains the main draw, without which her journey would never take place.
It may not be heavenly, or magical, but it has enough special touches to make it stand out. Most of all, though, ‘Hemel’ felt realistic.
Date of viewing: July 8, 2013