Sacha Polak’s debut feature film, Hemel (Heaven), is an intimate portrayal of transition into femininity and the childhood attachments that people shed as they turn into adults. Divided into eight individual chapters, this sexually charged character study follows Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra), as she goes from one sexual tryst after another. The various sexual relationships that she creates with many men and her uncouth demeanor in general, stems from the relationship she has with her father, Gijs (Hans Dagelet). After spending enough days going from one conquest to another, Gijs decides to settle down with Sophie (Rifka Lodeizen). After hearing the news, Hemel begins to act out even more and tries to find her place in the world. While it would sound like the film is a female version of Steve McQueen’s Shame, Hemel gives the audience a better understanding of its central character and its themes of the female identity and adulthood.
Hannah Hoekstra’s performance is no doubt fearless, but what struck me the most was the vulnerability that she portrays in the film. In the very first scene, she’s delightfully playing with her one night stand in bed, to then get into a conversation of pubic hair. He says its nasty and disgusting, in which she retorts that the act of sex itself is unhygienic. After this, she goes into the bathroom, to then grab the shaving cream, in order for him to “clean” her. The shot remains on her bare body sitting there, giving in to her partners demands and remaining naked for the world to see.
I immediately felt anger, enraged that her character had the audacity to take a stance for herself for being a strong willed woman in bed, to then be duped by her caving into the man’s demands. That very pressure that she felt, that any woman feels, when a man makes one feel insecure, I felt and it was after this first scene that I was totally entranced at what Hemel had to offer.
Little by little, Hoekstra, screenwriter Helena van der Meullen and director Sacha Polak display a sense of fragility and passion through the character of Hemel, constantly peeling back layers, as she goes from one fling to another. It always seems as if through sex, she’s searching for her own identity and the limits of any and every relationship she has with people in society. Shortly after being introduced to her father, we start to understand Hemel even more, all of her views and opinions stem from him and the error of his ways. Being promiscuous, indulging on the opposite sex is something that he’s done for ages, but now he’s finished. While it would seem that on the surface that Hoekstra and Polak are channeling a variation of the Elektra complex, it goes much deeper, in that with her father out of the picture and with Hemel never having a motherly figure in her life, she can’t cope with the fact that she has to become a true woman, with no female figure to guide her.
Artsploitation’s releases are always presented with a nice booklet, containing essay by film critic, Travis Crawford and interviews with the cast and crew. Hemel‘s release comes with interviews with both actress Hannah Hoekstra and director Sacha Polak, as well as having video interviews on the disc, that cover a bit of different material. There’s also a reversible cover, containing a much more risqué version, with many of the nude shots contained in the film.
In Shame, the final scene of the movie leaves it up to the audience whether or not Brandon is the same person after enduring all of these things. With Hemel, Polak doesn’t leave anything to the imagination, but does so in such a poetic way that makes the film feel like its come full circle. Artsploitation Films has managed to offer some amazing films from all over the world, but Hemel is truly breathtaking. With it being the first time out for Sacha Polak, I truly believe that she has a bright future ahead of her with the level of filmmaking she’s offering, in this unforgettable tale of a woman growing into her own. Highly Recommended!