Art and madness have always coexisted, but Camille Claudel, 1915 is about what happens when you take away the art and stifle a troubled, extraordinary mind. Built around a poignant, controlled performance from Juliette Binoche, French writer/director Bruno Dumont’s film looks to understand the darkness that covered Camille Claudel in 1915—and the remaining 30 years of her life.
This is by no means a conventional biopic. We don’t see Claudel’s youth, or her time as famed sculptor Auguste Rodin’s assistant and mistress, or her emergence as a bold, brilliant artist. Dumont isn’t interested in building a conventional narrative around the short timeframe that the film does explore, let alone her entire life. Instead, he journeys into alienation and desperation, demanding and rewarding his audience’s attention.
As the film begins, our heroine has already sculpted her last work and been confined to an asylum in the south of France. Her family has sent her there against her will, and she lives with a mix of confusion and paranoia. She waits for the visit of her brother, Paul, the famed poet, mystic and strict Catholic, although it’s unclear what that visit might accomplish.
Dumont and Binoche present Claudel as a woman who is not entirely in her right mind, but is no more at home in the asylum than she would be in the outside world. Her mental lapses are definitely real. She believes Rodin is somehow plotting against her and trying to steal her work, even though their relationship ended 20 years ago. She’s liable to abruptly succumb to fits of anger or depression. But much of her time is spent in melancholy quietude, trying to keep a grip on her mind while madness swarms around her. She remains intelligent and articulate throughout her travails, while most of her fellow inmates are too disabled to speak.
Dumont’s formal compositions emphasize the contrast between Binoche’s demeanor and the grotesqueries of the sanitarium. The asylum feels like a convent, with a sunny courtyard juxtaposed against dingy interiors. Her fellow inmates, played by actual patients, feed her madness. They laugh and smile through their missing teeth, bang spoons against tables and compound her feelings of coming unglued. It does little to help the reticent artist. Dumont often films Binoche straight on from behind, static in the center of the goings-on, and the actress’s body language is every bit as affecting as her facial expressions.
Dumont may be courting controversy by using real mental patients, but the decision yields results that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise. The film avoids veering into exploitation by simply showing the patients as they are and not sensationalizing the material. Claudel’s feelings are often tied to the patients around her, sometimes subtly, as they smile at her, other times overtly, as she watches a rehearsal of Don Juan.
Two-thirds through the film, Dumont jarringly shifts perspective to Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent) as he prepares to finally visit his sister. Paul spews out a lengthy monologue about his relationship with Catholicism and his mystic motivations. Parts of it amount to a whole lot of talking that quickly grows tedious given the reticence that prevails for much of the rest of the film, but that’s kind of the point.
We spend so much time in Camille’s head that it’s perhaps necessary to take a break and hear another point of view. The contrast of the philosophies is key to the film, and intellectually, the structure is justified. In practice, however, it feels a little stunted. The material with Paul isn’t quite compelling enough to make the shift satisfying. The longer the film goes without Camille, the less engaging it is.
That may, however, simply be a testament to how good Binoche is. In one scene, she picks up a hunk of clay from the ground and nudges it around with her thumb, hinting at an urge to work, to create. We can see all her feelings up there on the screen—her passion, her fear, her frustration. Camille Claudel, 1915 is a poem to a hopeless situation, and it’s these moments of yearning that really bring out its beauty.
Director: Bruno Dumont
Writer: Bruno Dumont
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent, Emmanuel Kauffman, Robert Leroy
Release Date: Oct. 16, 2013
In French with English subtitles.