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March 19, 2013


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Sacha Polak - 2012
Artsploitation Films Region 1 DVD

For myself, the best parts of Hemel did nothing to propel the narrative, where director Sacha Polak simply let the camera meditate on the face of Hannah Hoekstra. It's not simply a matter of Hoekstra being an attractive young woman. Lots of movies are full of attractive young women. But there is something about the opening shot, looking at her face, taking what seemed like minutes before I realized there was a man, out of focus, besides her. Some of the best moments were watching Hoekstra's long hair whipping around in the wind, as in a scene when she's walking around coast on a cold day. Even Hoekstra's hair has its own character, changing in color from reddish blonde to dark brown, almost black. You don't find that many actors who have the kind of face that the camera loves, at least not recently. The more abstract moments of Hemel were so visually pleasurable that the narrative portions of the film seemed like interruptions.

Hemel, her name is the Dutch word for Heaven, is a young woman going through affairs and one night stands, anchored by father who's known for his series of lovers. The relationship between father and daughter is the most intense of all. The men we see Hemel choose for herself are to greater or lesser degree older. Two of the men are involved with other women, while two have ideas of intimacy that Hemel finds alienating. One of the men insists on chocking Hemel while essentially raping her. Following that scene of rough sex, Hemel visits her step-brother and his fiancee, put off by their choosing celibacy before marriage. The only kinds of relationships Hemel seems to understand are transitory and sexually based.

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Sacha Polak's debut film, written by Helena van der Meulen, also explores in part how men and women thinks of their own, and each other's, bodies. In the first scene, Hemel has her vaginal area shaved to please a man who declares female pubic hair unhygienic. Hemel is first seen swallowing the man's spit. For Hemel, her response is that the sexual act is unhygienic. This suggests that the "dirtiness" of sex is part of the attraction to Hemel's compulsions. Later, she tells her father that she wants silicon injections in her lips because men find that attractive. Her father sensibly advises Hemel that any man who wants her based on altering the body she was born with is not worthy of her.

While it is not stated as such, Hemel might be said to be at war with her body, or at least the expectations of being born female. The first indication is a shot of Hemel peeing in a toilet standing up. At a nightclub, Hemel states her intentions clearly to a man with whom she wants to have sex. That she demands to be the one in control over her hookups and relishes the idea of having many lovers are traits that traditionally have been deemed as being masculine, and as such have often been the subject of art celebrating male prowess. Hemel's actions are not consciously feminist, nor does the film have an agenda in that regard. The film is non-judgmental of its characters, even when, in the most conventional sense, they behave badly.

Maybe I'm alone here, but I would have been mesmerized by a film just of Hannah Hoeksta. My favorite images from the film are of Hoekstra alone, standing on the beach, riding on the back of truck, or walking along a blue wall. The DVD comes with brief interviews with Hoeksta and Polak, with more in depth discussion with the supplemental booklet. Symbiotic is the operative word here.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 19, 2013 08:35 AM