Artsploitation Films // 2012 // 80 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 16th, 2013
Sex isn't everything. It's the only thing.
People are people. Yes there are some pretty obvious biological differences between men and women, but they are not nearly as significant as society makes them out to be. Emotional and sexual satisfaction are pretty basic human needs for everyone, and it is only weird socio-religious hang-ups that keep most people from only seeking one kind of fulfillment or the other (or mistaking one kind of fulfillment for the other). Social attitudes are always in flux, however, and as women gain increasing equality, it is necessary for our cultural representations (in movies, books, TV shows) to catch up. Suddenly, women can want sex, too, and it's from this basic premise that Hemel is built. Though it doesn't treat its sexual frankness with the kinds of nuance it could, this drama gains serious cred for solid performances and beautiful cinematography.
Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra, APP) is a young woman who doesn't mind being free with her sexuality; she burns through one-night stands like she's trying to earn a prize for emotional detachment. That all seems well and good, but then her similarly prolific father (Hans Dagelet, Amsterdamned) tells her he's settling down and getting married, Hemel's life stars to unravel.
The major problem with Hemel is that it isn't quite sure what to do with female sexuality. Our lead character's desire for empty, no-strings-attached sex must be because of her dysfunctional relationship with her father. When another woman comes into his life, she's afraid of being replaced, so she has to act out. We've heard this story before, though perhaps not presented with quite this much explicit nudity and frank sexuality. Though the nudity and frankness seem to open the film up, in fact they mask the lack of any emotional insight in the film.
I don't want to condemn Hemel out of hand. In fact, perhaps the nudity and weird sexuality between father and daughter will keep the timid away and let those made of sterner stuff enjoy the ephemeral pleasures the film does offer. The chief of these is a pair of excellent performances. Hemel is billed as the "international debut" for its star Hannah Hoekstra, and given her performance in this film she could be an American star along the lines of Audrey Tautou in a heartbeat if she chose. On the opposite end of the spectrum her father is played by veteran Hans Dagelet. He's got the thankless job of being the father to the sexually conflicted young girl. He has to be both sympathetic and fatherly while not appearing creepy in his odd relationship with his daughter. Though I'm not sure the pair sell the father/daughter relationship (I've never seen a relationship like this so I can't judge the authenticity) but I can say that they seem like they've known each other forever in a way that's impressive.
I'm not one to notice dialogue quality in foreign releases -- most of the time subtitles are utilitarian and the jokes and subtleties get lost along the way. However, I was often impressed by the quality of the exchanges in Hemel. During a very early scene, Hemel is in bed with a one-night stand, and he's complaining that she doesn't shave her pubic hair. One of his objections is that all that hair can't be unhygienic. She deadpans back to him "sex is unhygienic." It's a beautiful moment that reveals her character, creates tension, and reveals to us that even though this guy is obviously someone she doesn't respect, she still had sex with him.
Finally, for a first-time director Sacha Polak knows how to make a film look good. There's a soft, glowing quality to much of the film that gives it a slightly dreamy vibe, and the handheld camerawork fits the mood of the film perfectly. Even if you have no interest in the story or characters, the film is worth watching just for its beauty.
The DVD certainly helps as well. The 2.20:1 anamorphic transfer is gorgeous. Detail is strong, colors are well-saturated, and black levels stay deep and consistent. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Dutch language track keeps dialogue clear and well-balanced, and English subtitles are included.
Extras start with two interviews, one each with the star and the director of the film -- the box promises a third with the screenwriter but I couldn't find it. The two interviews here total 11 minutes, and both women are articulate about the film and their role in it. The film's trailer is also included. A booklet includes a short essay on the film as well as additional interview material with Hoekstra and Polak. The DVD is also reversible for a slightly more explicit and erotic take on the poster art.
Obviously Hemel deals with sexuality frankly, and anyone who objects to full frontal male and female nudity should steer clear. Hemel isn't porn or anything but it also isn't afraid of showing human anatomy for what it is.
Hemel is an interesting debut for both its director and its star. Though it's a bit too schematic (and predictable) about its central relationship, it's filled with interesting visuals and engaging performance. Even if you don't appreciate Hemel, those involved are figures who should all be looking out for in the future. This excellent DVD release by Artsploitation is perfect for fans or those who want to brave a film that takes drama slightly off the beaten path.
For its stunning cinematography alone, Hemel is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Artsploitation Films
* 2.20:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Dutch)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Unrated