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In brisk, businesslike fashion, much like its heroine, Hemel gets straight down to business with an opening scene of two people naked and rolling around, the woman mocking the man’s penis – you’re no David and it’s hardly Goliath etc – as part of an extended bout of cockteasing foreplay.

Hemel – it means Heaven in Dutch – is a woman who likes sex and, being good-looking and young, has no trouble getting it. But, sex in this film being nowhere near as simple as it seems, Hemel wants it with an urgency that seems almost too needy. Later, having had her fun with the partner we met in the opening scene, she’s at a nightclub and is approaching North African guys. My cunt is wet, she informs them. Do you want to feel it? It’s not long before she has a taker.

Sacha Polak’s remarkable feature debut won a FIPRESCI prize when it was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2012 and wins any number of unofficial prizes for frankness. But there’s also a psychological study going on in its brief (80 minutes) running time. There’s more to Hemel than Hanna Hoekstra’s frequently unclothed body.

Actually, the focus is more on Hoekstra’s face than her body. It’s a face that can take it and it gets plenty of action as the character she’s playing tangles with one cold fuck after another, alternating alienated sexual encounters with visits to her father (Hans Dagelet), a jazz trumpeter living a playboy lifestyle with one much younger woman after another.

Gijs with daughter Hemel
Daddy issues, maybe?

Though the film is about Hemel rather than Gijs, her father, it catches both of them as they, in effect, grow up – she realising there’s more to life than zipless fucks, he meeting someone he wants to get serious with.

Daddy issues are clearly in play, and Polak gives us an interesting scene early on where Hemel and Gijs are play-fighting, the whole thing not dissimilar to the opening scene of her mocking her latest lover. Later, Polak intercuts between her being naked in the bathroom and him being naked in the same bathroom. Same space, different time, incest suggested by the editing.

She’s a little girl lost, a woman searching for a stable father figure, since the actual father she has doesn’t seem to be up to the job. This makes Hemel something of an old-school, almost pre-feminist film in some respects, and if you’re feeling a certain unease with the portrait it’s painting of what is in effect a silly young woman, the acres of naked flesh probably aren’t going to appease you much.

But Hoekstra brings an intensity to the role that helps deflect criticism. She’s brilliantly good as an emotionally guarded woman who’s long ago worked out that the best form of defence is attack. If you’ve seen the slightly preposterous German TV series You Are Wanted, you’ll already know this. The four episodes she appeared in had a sparkle and edge the other ones didn’t. She’s one of those actors that send you scuttling online to see what else of theirs is available out there to watch.

It’s a hot topic done with a cool, almost forensically clinical touch, down to the shooting style and colour palette of DP Daniël Bouquet, and Hemel is a neat, tight film that knows what it wants to say and how to say it. Would it work as well with a different actress in the lead? Probably not, though Polak has a gift for picking talent. Wende Snijders, in Zurich, Polak’s thematically similar feature follow-up, and Vicky Knight in Dirty God, Polak’s English language debut, both also turned out to be (largely unknown) young actresses with talent to burn.

More please, in other words.

Hemel – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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