Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont - France) 95 minutes
A new departure for French director Bruno Dumont, whose austere, silence-filled films are the antithesis of mainstream cinema. Here, he casts an Oscar-winning actress, Juliette Binoche, in the lead role, the first time he has used professional actors in his seven films. It is also the first time Dumont has portrayed a historical figure — in this case Camille Claudel, the French sculptress, and former mistress of Rodin, who has become a feminist icon in the past 25 years as her lost reputation has been restored. A previous biopic, from 1989, exists, directed by Bruno Nuytten and starring Isabelle Adjani as Claudel and Gérard Depardieu as Rodin; that was a straightforward biopic, admirable in its own way but nothing out of the ordinary.
Camille Claudel 1915, as the title indicates, depicts a few months in the life of the artist (in, interestingly the same year in which Gilles Bourdos’s recent Renoir film is set). She is incarcerated in the Montdevergues mental asylum near Avignon, having been committed there two years previously by her family, following a series of troubling episodes. Dumont’s preference for non-professional actors is maintained here, with real institutionalised women playing the roles of the inmates. They are all, almost without exception, severely mentally disabled, well beyond the emotional disturbances that Camille has been subject to. This is the crux of what is, unusually for Dumont, quite a simple film: the injustice Camille Claudel faced in being kept in an environment which was clearly not suited to her. The doctors in the institution agree, but her younger brother, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, refuses to sign her release.
Dumont’s portrayal of the mentally ill in the film is sympathetic — and Camille herself is likewise caring towards her fellow wards with whom she cannot converse — but he has no time for the sort of cant that proclaims the invigorating nature of daily contact with them. Camille Claudel spent the last 29 years of her life unjustly locked up, and her artistic career — and her posthumous reputation — was ruined as a result. That is not to say that she did not suffer real mental illness — the film shows her as paranoid, so convinced somebody is trying to poison her that she persuades the asylum’s nurses to allow her cook her own meals. Why she was not accommodated in a more suitable institution is a mystery.
If the casting and the subject matter are novel for Dumont, his style and method are much the same. Camille Claudel 1915 is a slow, meditative film that will appeal to fans of his Bressonian rigour and his philosophically-underpinned drama. Those expecting a more conventional artistic biography will be disappointed. That said, Binoche is excellent, much better than she has been in recent years — she has never quite slipped effortlessly into middle-aged roles as Adjani, Isabelle Huppert or Natalie Baye before her — and it is ironic that she should thrive so under a director who doesn’t usually feel much of a use for trained actors. Her brother Paul, played by a relative unknown, Jean-Luc Vincent, comes across as a tower of uptight smugness (though that may be simply a very realistic portrayal of the bourgeoisie of the Third Republic). He is a man who having been an agnostic in his youth, returned to Catholicism, as much out of a proto-existentialist whim as conviction. He relates all this in a lengthy monologue delivered to a priest who puts him up for the night. You are never quite sure if this is intended to have a bearing on the treatment of his sister.
To be fair to Paul Claudel (a man best known in English via Auden’s words ‘History will also pardon Paul Claudel/Pardon him for writing well’), his treatment of his sister was not unremittingly cruel. He visited her regularly till the end of her life (he outlived her by twelve years, dying in 1955) and corresponded with her too. There is a sadness at the heart of Dumont’s film though that contrasts the troubled energy of the artist Camille with the calculated reason of her diplomat brother. Again, for Dumont it is an unusual step — his characters’ relationships usually don’t express themselves in quite so many words, not to mention emotions. Camille Claudel 1915 is a quiet film but the injustice at the heart of it rings out clearly.