SIFF Film Review – Hemel
In Dutch, “hemel” means “heaven.” In the new film screening at the Seattle International Film Festival of the same name, it is the name of the title character played by the beautiful and engaging Hannah Hoekstra. Hemel is a woman in her 20s who, at the beginning, seems to be in charge of her sexuality. The film is broken up into segments using subtitles to delineate when a new chapter begins. During the early stages of the film, Hemel is shown picking up a few different guys in bars over the course of a couple of nights, having sex with them, and then dumping them as quickly as possible. After sleeping with one in particular who wants to cuddle after the act, she tells him she prefers her lovers to act like lions: be quick and fall asleep when they’re done. She is refreshingly matter of fact in her sexual needs.
Starting in a chapter titled “Father and Daughter,” we see how Hemel relates to her single father, Gijs (played by Hans Dagelet). The bond between the two of them is intimate. Her mother has been out of the picture for most of her life, so her father has been the strongest influence on her growing up. There are hints of an undercurrent of incestuous attraction, but no indication it has ever been acted on. Gijs seems to treat Hemel as more of an equal rather than “fathering” her too much. He is also very open about what seems to be his very promiscuous life as well. But the love she feels for him really becomes apparent during a touching scene at the opera where they silently enjoy a moving piece of music while simply holding hands.
But when a new woman enters Gijs life and it looks like an actual relationship is forming, Hemel reacts more with the jealousy of a spurned lover than that of a daughter. This film is very intriguing in how it evokes the unspoken feelings involved in family dynamics. The command she has over her sexuality makes her not a victim or someone to be looked down on. Up until one violently unpleasant encounter with a partner, she is simply using sex as a lot of men often do: something to fulfill her needs. She has a hole in her heart regarding her daddy issues, but she’s not a frail victim. Much like most of us, she’s simply figuring it all out as she goes.
The performance by Hoekstra here is the real standout of the film. She is intense, funny, strong, and thoroughly engaging. As she plays it, Hemel is in control of the interactions with the lovers in her life. She takes what she needs. But far from being one-dimensional, her scenes with Dagelet show genuine love and yearning for attention. Much like with the recent discovery of Noomi Rapace in the Dragon Tattoo movies, look for Hannah Hoekstra to be scooped up by Hollywood soon. Hers is the kind of screen acting that will find a place in larger film vehicles to come.
Also of note is the haunting score that runs throughout the film. It has a repetitive, world-weary drone that underlines the wanderings of the characters. Sometimes, with Hemel just considering her world and that music underneath, you learn more about her than what the dialogue reveals.
The Netherlands seems to be a fertile ground for sexually explicit adult fare lately. Hemel proves you don’t necessarily need the trappings of a genre thriller to make an interesting film. How a daughter relates to her father and finding her place in the world can indeed be intriguing by itself. Recommended.
Hemel screens tonight at 9:30 PM at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.
Final Grade: B+