Released under the relatively new Artsploitation label, with a softcore/sadcore cover and a racy tagline (“Sex isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”), Sacha Polak’s Hemel pulls off the classic Euroart bait-and-switch: Come for the wall-to-wall nudity, stay for the agonized portrait of loneliness and the fruitless quest for true intimacy. The most obvious point of comparison for Hemel is Steve McQueen’s Shame, another story of a joyless drift from bed to bed and one sexual extreme to another. But Hemel doesn’t fly under a banner as broad as “sex addiction,” and it’s far less emphatic in revealing the roots of its protagonist’s casual escapades. Making an exceptionally sure-handed feature debut, Polak gives each of her heroine’s couplings its own character and life, and she works carefully to understand the complex father-daughter relationship that serves as the film’s lynchpin.
Opening with a post-coital scene that quickly veers from playful to contentious, the film stars Hannah Hoekstra as the eponymous character (her name means “heaven” in Dutch, for which she’s teased relentlessly), who hooks up with anonymous men but rarely seems satisfied—and never once it’s over. She announces her desires with startling frankness and opens herself up to dangerous situations, including one partner who seizes her by the throat. Hoekstra has a symbiotic relationship with her single father, played by Hans Dagelet, who’s just as promiscuous with women young and old. But dad is looking to settle down with his latest girlfriend, which triggers strange feelings of jealousy and resentment within her.
While the film stops well short of incest, there’s nonetheless an unusual closeness between father and daughter that manifests itself physically and emotionally, and becomes acutely painful for Hoekstra when the only man she really loves slips away. She reacts with a child’s petulance that explains some of her bed-hopping misbehavior: She’s a 23-year-old with a teenager’s neediness, and she acts out to hurt her father and punish herself, sending her into a spiral of self-loathing. Polak doesn’t lay it on too thick—the Shame comparisons really work in her favor, as much as the two films are about different things—and Hoekstra gives a performance that communicates more in looks and body language than anything vocalized. Under that “come hither” stare, the raw hurt still registers.
Key features: Brief interviews with Polak, Hoekstra, and screenwriter Henela Van Der Meulen, trailers for Hemel and other Artsploitation releases, and a nice booklet with a liner-notes essay by Travis Crawford.