Lust, love, and need prove a tangled knot inside the heart of one young woman in Hemel, Sacha Polak’s alluring character study of a beautiful Dutch twentysomething driven to fill an emotional void with casual one-night stands. Polak’s film opens with a nude Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra), whose name translates to “Heaven,” casually bantering with a lover in bed before allowing him to shave her pubic hair—an act that Hemel tellingly remarks will make her look like a young child. Her subsequent escapades with a variety of random men make clear her desire for carnal pleasure devoid of love, and that refusal to seek out, if not outright terror of, mature interpersonal connection is most forcefully confronted via her relationship to her father, Gijs (Hans Dagelet), whose own new-girlfriend-every-week bachelor’s life is the model after which Hemel’s own conduct is clearly modeled. Comfortable showering in front of each other or holding and stroking each others’ hands at the opera, Hemel and Gijs’s bond is familiar to the point of being borderline creepy, and Polak allows subtle Oedipal undercurrents to create increasingly tense internal drama. That’s especially true once Gijs chooses to settle down and move in with a colleague and Hemel is forced to face not only the loss of her father as a close kindred comrade-in-sluttiness, but also to confront her own problematic discomfort with intimacy.
The early sight of Hemel urinating standing up dovetails with her more fundamental attempts to emulate her father’s more “masculine” sex-above-commitment ethos, an impression furthered by her post-coital admission to an Algerian bedmate that she prefers her lovers to pass out after sex, like lions. Polak’s episodic tale has a dreaminess marked by shots that drift in and out of focus to convey Hemel’s retreat from real feeling into vulgar sex talk, or tilt from right to left on a fixed axis to suggest that she’s careening out of control. Like Shame, Hemel presents sex as a means of avoiding true emotion, but unlike Steve McQueen’s film, it stops short of depicting it as outright unpleasant, with Polak reveling in her character’s wild-woman eroticism while simultaneously laying out, through both sexual encounters gone awry and her thorny infantile-daughter relationship with Gijs, the way in which she uses physical contact as a defense mechanism against adulthood. So often does the filmmaker avoid italicizing the screwy root causes of her character’s behavior that a few more affected, hand-holding moments—Hemel sadly walking down city sidewalks, or contemplating a swan dive off a building rooftop—stick out like sore thumbs. Any minor detours into obviousness, however, are overshadowed by an entrancing electronica-scored mood of anxiety and anger, and by Hoekstra’s stunning, star-making performance, which, in one striking close-up after another, sharply captures the fear and pain of having to let go and grow up.