Artsploitation: Hemel (2012) - Reviewed

Sex in film is a neutral though malleable attribute, whether it be for titillation, driving the characterizations forward or advancing the story in some fashion.  What it rarely does except in some cases is illustrate a character’s personality based on their sexual behavior.  Films like Last Tango in Paris, Shame or Mysterious Skin contain numerous sex scenes which are designed to put onscreen what drives a character’s immersion in particular situations, however aberrant or self-destructive the behavior may seem.  

Which brings us to carnal yet clandestine character study Hemel, Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak’s mysterious yet intimate directorial debut about a young woman adrift from one casual sexual encounter after another whose only close relationship to speak of is an unnaturally close one to her father.  Much like the other 2012 Artsploitation acquisition Clip and Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, each encounter is tinged with a different layer of meaning intended to provide a glimpse into the person our title character is trying so hard to hide. 

Semi-autobiographical for its writer-director given her own close relationship with her father, Hemel plays less like erotica than a down-to-Earth slice of life with all the good, bad and messy thrown into the mix, all navigated by Polak’s deft, understated direction and lead actress Hanna Hoekstra’s brave go-for-broke performance.  As you’ve probably figured out by now, this is a film with a lot of sex and nudity though much like director Polak’s heroine, Hemel for all of its carnality is curiously dispassionate, even sterile at times with regard to monitoring the protagonist’s actions. 

Visually it’s a handsomely photographed piece thanks to Daniel Bouquet’s widescreen cinematography and the low key minimalist score by Rutger Reinders adds a subtle ambience to the proceedings.  Mostly, however, this is a largely front-loaded sonic experience as the increasingly defiant and lost Hemel who is rarely not in the center of the frame finds herself torn between adoration of her father and jealousy of his frequent on and off girlfriends passing through.

If there is a complaint to make about Sacha Polak’s otherwise impressive and bold directorial debut, it would be that compared to the far more difficult and explicit Clip, Hemel for all of the varied sexual encounters it hurls upon the protagonist (and us) tends to meander.  Whereas Clip maintained a strong narrative hook, Hemel sort of saunters casually from one scene to the next though all of the moments Hemel and her father have together are tinged with poignancy.  Still, this was an otherwise compelling, quiet character study about a lost young woman searching for a meaningful relationship in all the wrong places. 

- Andrew Kotwicki