More than a few female filmmakers have attempted new ways of depicting the sexual drives of their heroines on screen, with Europe essentially cornering that market (and Catherine Breillat practically turning it into an industry) and others like Jane Campion receiving both adulation and scorn for their efforts. Throwing a curve ball into the game is the Dutch film Hemel, a frank character study whose title character is a twentysomething woman drifting through a string of casual flings.
Hemel (whose name translates as "Heaven") seems to base more than a bit of her behavior off of her father, Gijs (Dagelet), who raised her by himself after her mother's death and has a similar no-strings approach to his sexual partners. Hemel's conquests range from tender, understanding men to abusive brutes, and she doesn't seem to have much use for them after they've served their purpose. However, trouble starts brewing when her already possessive relationship with her father is strained by the arrival of his new potential girlfriend, Sophie (Lodeizen), who might force Hemel to take a harder look at her own life choices.
Both the packaging and liner notes for Hemel make prominent use of the word "explicit" to describe its content, though that only applies mainly to the opening ten minutes in which Hemel and her afternoon partner have a lengthy conversation and nude love scene that takes time out for him to shave her nether regions. If you're expecting a graphic art film along the lines of 9 Songs or Shortbus, well, this isn't it; the MPAA would probably slap this with an NC-17, but it's more along the lines of something like Shame (though definitely not as harrowing). Despite the subject matter, the most interesting aspect of this film is definitely the relationship between Hemel and her father, whose potentially incestuous angle is made more complex by the two stellar lead performances and deft, ambiguous handling by director Sacha Polak, who seems most confident and daring in the quiet moments between the two.
The sexual philosophy of the film is certainly interesting to contemplate; in a sense this is a more thoughtful look at the thoughts espoused in the controversial Sex: The Annabel Chong Story back in 1999, about a college-educated porn actress who vocalizes her intentions to take over the "stud" role from men. Obviously what Hemel does here is on a more private scale, but her wish that her partners would lie over and fall asleep after she's finished with them is definitely in the same emotional playpen.
In keeping with its past releases like Gandu and Lapland Odyssey, American DVD label Artsploitation brings this little gem to home audiences in fine form with a solid anamorphic transfer presenting the film in its original scope(ish) aspect ratio, measuring about 2.20:1 (which fellow Dutch director Paul Verhoeven favors sometimes, oddly enough). The 2.0 Dutch stereo soundtrack sounds fine given the very modest nature of the source, which is mainly driven by dialogue and restrained ambient sounds. Also included are video interviews with Hoekstra, director Polak, and screenwriter Helena Van Der Meulen, who offer their own views on the tricky main character, the balance of setting up her relationship with her father (the main key for Polak), and grappling with the potentially volatile sexuality of the story. Also included is the theatrical trailer and bonus ones for Artsploitation's Clip, Combat Girls, and Vanishing Waves, plus a 12-page insert booklet containing an excellent, thoughtful essay about the film by Travis Crawford and brief additional text interviews with the star and director.