Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2012

Possible Ends: Suicide and Grace in Jansenist Narrative Cinema

David Heinemann


‘What will we do, then . . . in eternal despair at knowing

neither our beginning nor our end?’ – Blaise Pascal[1]


Certain films by filmmakers with an interest in Christian theology use the prospect of the protagonist’s suicide to highlight issues of predetermination and free will, spiritual despair and grace. This paper examines three such films, related by their despairing heroines’ journey toward suicide which paradoxically leads to a moment of grace: Mouchette (Bresson, 1967), Rosetta (Dardenne brothers, 1999), and Hadewijch (Dumont, 2009). Suicide as the final event of a story marks a special instance of narrative closure: character-determined, conclusive, seemingly definitive of character. Yet in these films the endings appear at once contingent and destined, creating a tension between the characters’ apparent free will and a determining force or forces.

The many similarities among the films are as striking as their differences. In all three films, the visitation of grace involves the action or inaction of a secondary character. In Rosetta and Hadewijch, the heroines’ last-minute rescue is unexpected and unlikely – ‘miraculous’ – yet executed by ordinary characters acting through, and representative of, charity. The divine appears manifest in the world. Furthermore, in Jansenist fashion grace is forced upon the unwilling Rosetta and Hadewijch; others physically prevent them from carrying out their intentions.

Mouchette, on the other hand, succeeds in her attempt at suicide thanks to the pointed lack of charity exhibited by those around her. Unexpectedly, the narration marks her suicide as a moment of grace. Indeed, none of the eponymous heroines merits grace; all are sinful, in a state of despair. The visitation of grace thus appears distinctly beneficent. Yet in consonance with their Jansenist spiritual message, the films’ searing social critique highlights the necessity for human charity. In the harsh social and economic environments of these film, charity itself is represented as miraculous.

Drawing on narrative theory and Jansenist theology, and referencing key stylistic elements of the films, I explore how the films create this sense of divine immanence, and how such representations of boundary situations affect our sense of character freedom and the significance of endings.



[1]   Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 67.

Only abstracts are available on this site

About the Presenter

David Heinemann
Middlesex University
United Kingdom

Lecturer in Fim

Media Department