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Hemel | DVD Review

Sacha Polak Hemel Blu-ray Cover BoxPlaying sort of like the female version of Steve McQueen’s Shame comes Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak’s film debut, Hemel, a provocative and, more significantly, non-exploitative exploration of a young woman’s confused search for intimacy through (more often than not) hollow casual sexual encounters. A 2012 Berlin International Film Festival selection, Polak’s film also captures an emotionally potent performance from newcomer Hannah Hoekstra, creating a fascinating and realistic portrait of sexuality, a rare phenomenon even in the heterosexual realm.

We meet the twenty three year old Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra), which means Heaven, in the midst of a hook-up with a man she seems to have little in common with. Exchanging hostile observations supporting hostile gender stereotypes, their banter evolves into a discussion of women shaving pubic hair, which Hemel is opposed to but let’s herself be sheared anyhow. She equates a lack of hair with pre pubescence and we quickly come to find Hemel is in awkward stage of development where regression into adolescent behavior seems more appropriate. Throughout the next few chapters, we learn that she is only close to her father, Gijs (Hans Dagelet), a relationship that is beyond “symbiotic,” and seems unhealthily co-dependent. It seems her father, who raised her on his own, has been somewhat of a playboy, that is until he meets the ‘one,’ a mousy co-worker, Sophie (Rifka Lodeizen). His relationship with Sophie clearly threatens Hemel, who we have seen in several one night stand scenarios, ranging from a physically intimate moment with a man named Mohammed (from which she recoils, viscerally) and a more violent scenario with a hook-up that could have endangered her, which she recounts gleefully at a party, as if sporting a battle scar.

To avoid talking about her real feelings, Hemel always seems to veer into crass, vulgar talk, always circulating around sex, which has always been used only as a means of escapism, though it seems clear she seeks intimacy. As she seemed to learn from Gijs, sex and intimacy are clearly separate, so the fact that he has settled for a woman that unites these for him seems to untie Hemel.

Of course, there’s a lot of symbolism we’re supposed to take from the eponymous Hemel, as evidenced by one of the eight chapters titled, “Where God Lives,” or Gijs’ conversation with Sophie relating how “Heaven was an accident.” Her fantastical name aside, Hemel’s only role model has been her father, so she takes an overtly masculine stance in almost all aspects, whether as sexual aggressor or even in how she insistently urinates while standing up early on in the opening moments of the film. However, it’s clear she is struggling to find something, her behavior becoming wildly immature when threatened. While Polak has created a beautifully realized character study from Helena van der Meulen’s screenplay, and the film feature an intoxicating mix of a carefully selected soundtrack and DP Daniel Bouquet’s beautifully composed frames (he also worked on Boudewijn Koole’s 2012 film, Kauwboy), they never let us forget that this is all about Hemel. And of course, they would be absolutely nowhere if it weren’t for the captivating performance from Hannah Hoekstra, whose emotional fluctuations make her reminiscent of Imogen Poots in her infantile brat attacks and even Romy Schneider when she’s quietly alone in her own head, contemplative and floundering. She’s also wickedly funny, as much a source of darkly comic undertones to the film as she is the melancholy heart. She witheringly quizzes an ex-step brother about why he hasn’t had sex with his sweetheart yet, who replies that they “aren’t in any rush.” “It’s not a bus you have to catch,” she remarks.

Disc Review:

Polak’s wonderfully lensed film, shot by Bouquet in widescreen 2.35.1, with a large amount of close-ups, manages to look exquisite in Artspolitation’s DVD transfer. While the extras are a bit slim, including a 12 page booklet, trailers, an interchangeable DVD jacket (nifty) and clips of interviews with the star and director, it’s hard to imagine what else could have been included to enhance the entire package.

While it’s interesting to hear newcomer Hoekstra share her experiences with her first role, and such a sexually charged one at that, both interviews are unfortunately considerably condensed, mostly focusing on specific questions regarding the explicit material. Polak comments that making her first feature was much more difficult than she had anticipated.

Final Thoughts:

While Hemel may be frank and explicit concerning how it depicts sexuality, Polak never reduces her film to exploitation or tastelessness. Provocative, and even daring, it’s a bravely realistic look at the struggle to unite carnal desire with intimacy, and the search that may ensue when we look for it in all the wrong places. Managing to be funny and moving, Polak’s Hemel is an observational portrait of a young woman searching to make a transition. Albeit simple, it’s a convincingly and compellingly packaged piece of cinema.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.


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