A tale of a young woman’s compulsive and transgressive sexual behavior that features ample shots of its characters’ nether-regions, “Hemel” at first feels like a Dutch female version of “Shame.” But unlike that recent film, helmer Sacha Polak’s debut pays equal attention to the complex family bonds that underlie its protag’s psychological makeup and inform her actions. Beautifully lensed look at the moment just before a daughter has to let go of her father should travel extensively and turn Polak into a name to watch.
Pic opens with some in-the-buff roughhousing involving Hemel (stunning newcomer Hannah Hoekstra) and a guy (Ward Weemhoff) she’s picked up the night before — something, it emerges, she does quite frequently. A shot of her peeing standing up recalls a similar scene in “Shame,” and, indeed, the pic’s first two of eight chapters also clinically detail her conquests and sexual behavior, which seem vulgar, compulsive and loveless. When a man (Abdullah El Baoudi) caresses her after the deed, she tells him she prefers her partners to act like lions: Be quick and then fall asleep.
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But by the third segment, “Father and Daughter,” Polak has contextualized Hemel’s acts by introducing the complex relationship with her widowed father, Gijs (Hans Dagelet). A silver fox who works at Christie’s, Gijs has dated several women younger than himself, though his numerous monogamous relationships have never felt like a threat to Hemel, who no doubt thinks her sex life is just like her dad’s, only a bit more intense.
Hemel (which means “Heaven” in Dutch) knows that her bond with her father, since her mother’s early death and her own coming of age, is rock-solid, though both are unaware that their rapport often feels closer to a de-facto marriage (without the sex) than a healthy parent-offspring relationship. A montage sequence of a visit to the opera impressively suggests this point without using any words.
The arrival of Sophie (Rifka Lodeizen), a down-to-earth colleague of Gijs’, starts to threaten the status quo when their relationship becomes something more serious. Though Helena van der Meulen’s screenplay is a tad too schematic, it offers a wealth of well-observed scenes that are realistic and psychologically illuminating, such as Hemel’s unplanned visit to her devoutly Protestant ex-stepbrother (Maarten Heijermans) after one of her hookups turned unexpectedly violent.
A postcoital conversation with married man (Mark Rietman) who is otherwise faithful is typical of the pic’s lifelike yet smart dialogue, with his joke about her suffering from Tourette’s driving home the point that Hemel’s condition should be seen as something serious. But Polak thankfully shows restraint in the cause-and-effect department, observing the characters’ behavior without self-consciously underlining how one thing is related to another.
Veteran thesp Dagelet aces the role of a normally functioning man who has blinkers on when it comes to his daughter, but the film belongs to Hoekstra, who literally gives it her all. Her Hemel is impulsive and rude, supremely confident but also fragile and needy.
After his outstanding work on “Nothing Personal,” lenser Daniel Bouquet here impresses with widescreen work composed of milky lights and muted colors. Score’s main motif, structured around what sounds like an electrocardiograph monitor, adds another wistful note.