Like most of director Bruno Dumont’s films, “Camille Claudel 1915” has proven divisive (you can read our take here), but one thing that critics on both sides of the fence are in unanimous agreement about is the quality of the central performance from Juliette Binoche. Economically contained and internalised, even when her Claudel is displaying some rare histrionics, Binoche invests the role with oceanic depths and undercurrents of conflicting emotion in a turn that in some ways can almost be seen as the stripped-away template for the kind of melancholic, tragic, tortured heroine with which she has made her name.
During an enjoyable and intimate (no seriously — we were alone in a bedroom) interview with Binoche at the Berlin International Film Festival last week, we got to talk about her approach to this role, her sometimes friction-y relationships with the various auteur directors she has worked with (often more than once), and her aforementioned tragic air, which was borne out by the seriousness with which she answered our questions, and then regularly belied by frequent peals of totally infectious and uninhibited laughter, usually directed at herself.
“Camille Claudel 1915” feels resolutely anti-dramatic. Is it a film mostly about absence of love, of creativity, of companionship?
I would say “abnegation.” [Claudel had] been put on the outside of society, and the outside of her family, and on the outside of herself, of her possible creativity. They wanted her to be creative but she refused it, it would have meant accepting her situation which she never accepted to the end of her life. But it puts her in a situation where she’s not herself… And when you push so much into a corner of yourself you have to find what’s inside in order to survive. I think her spiritual life probably opened up at that time.
Her brother wrote that he went to see her two weeks before she died and he saw the happiest expression on her face as if she had reached some sort of bliss before going. So you think, “Wow! Life has taken everything away from her and she has been to the nothingness of her being, the poorest, the coldest, the most unjust thing that ever happened and she was able to find a way of surviving.” And that is fascinating.
Did the challenge of portraying someone so passionate, but so oppressed attract you to the role?
Actually I didn’t even question the role, I just knew I wanted to work with Dumont. Because to me he is the most talented director in France. And I have nostalgia for Tarkovsky and Dreyer and because I cannot shoot with them, I’m gonna “invent” a Dreyer relationship! [And there is] that melancholia I have, and Dumont is closest, in a way, to that world.
And so when he had the idea of ‘Camille Claudel’ I was thrilled because I had already plugged in some sort of relationship with her — I was taken by her passion and also touched by what she had to go through… Of course dealing with insanity it was a big question to me because as a teenager I experienced going to psychiatric hospitals because one member of my family had been through these places. So I kind of knew the surroundings, but at the same time playing it was a different story, and I was scared. So that’s why I said… “I want to have a coach because this is a scary area and if I have to go there, I want to come back.”
[Dumont] didn’t take it nicely at first, he said “You don’t trust me to direct, I know how to direct” and I said “It’s not about that. You have to trust me also as an actor, and if you don’t want to give me the script, I have to trust you… but it’s half/half — it can’t just be one way.”
Dumont refused to give you the script in advance?
He said, “You don’t read the script.” But then I was trying to extract from him some information about the story. And we had kind of regular lunches and dinners, and I said give me at least — I know it’s three days of her life — but what’s happening day one, day two. And he started telling me, and I was so happy we were in a restaurant that had paper napkins so I could write down everything he was saying as quickly as possible “Slow down, slow down!”
So you improvised off your napkin script?
Well, then he said, “Now you just have to read Camille’s letters and be inspired by her so much that you’ll speak like her.” I said, “Are you kidding? I don’t speak like her, I don’t think that way — it’s a century ago, it’s a different world.” So he gave me the monologue with the doctor, the monologue with the brother. I was so happy! But he also said “I want you to improvise!” So I said, “Okay, you mean use my words” and he said yes.
So I worked on the computer and rewrote her lines and tried to find a way of how I would say things, and I sent it to him and he said “No! You forgot that expression, that thing there that she said…” So I said, “Oh, I understand now what you want — you want exactly her words, but all improvised!” And he said, “Yes, that’s exactly it.”
How did you work to this contradictory direction?
What I understood by his use of the word “improvisation” was just “truth.” So the choice of having no make up at all was already having nothing between me and the camera, so in a way this acceptance of being “bare” was my “safe hands” — what was revealed had to be taken, there were no defenses for me. Camille too was probably so vulnerable in this environment that it was a good start for this role.
How was it to work with non-actors in this film?
I’ve worked with non-actors before, but this was specific, they had handicaps, they were patients. And we didn’t know whether they were able to do a second take, and as an actor you always wish for a second take in order to explore differently…[But] I think in the human being, no matter what, playing — the “game” thing — is in all of us, because it’s a way of learning about life. Like children playing a game over and over, and reliving it, it’s a way of printing it inside of you.
And so the patients treated it like a game?
Absolutely, and they were able to repeat it. And that was the fascination of working with patients — playing within a human structure.
One of the other times you worked with first-time actors was on a favourite film of ours, “Certified Copy” for Abbas Kiarostami. He spoke of wanting to work with you again — will that happen?
Oh, I love to work with Abbas, I love him. I love his movies and it’s so freeing to work with him, he’s just allowing life. And he likes details — small things. He’s been starting to write a script with Jean-Claude Carriere [who wrote the screenplay for Binoche’s international breakout “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” among many other credits] but… we’ve been missing each other. We’ll see how things how things go.
But you definitely are reuniting with Olivier Assays for “Sils Maria” a film he descirbed as “A Juliette Binoche movie about Juliette Binoche with Juliette Binoche”?
About Juliette Binoche? Well, we’ll see about that.! Because he probably thinks it’s about Juliette Binoche but he doesn’t know me that well, so we’ll talk about that!
It will mark yet another instance of you reteaming with a director. Does the experience differ between the first and second time you work for the same director?
Yes, each time it’s different. With Haneke for example, “Code Unknown” and “Cache” were very different experiences. The first time, with “Code Unknown” it felt like he could scan me and…see inside of me. It was almost scary, I was like “Wow, this man is a clairvoyant!” because he could really trigger what was happening [to me]. But “Cache,” maybe it’s because of the title and the subject, at the beginning I felt he was totally oblivious to what I was doing, not understanding what I was going through. I think his focus was more on the male character. And when I was like “Hey, hey, what about me?” all of sudden he started picking up on everything I did and I was “Go back to the man! I don’t need you” It was funny. But I felt I had a different experience, I have to say. Who else do you mean?
Well, Leos Carax?
Carax was a long time ago but they were very different experiences. You know, “Mauvais Sang” was the beginning of our work together and our relationship as well, and there was a lot of admiration and a lot of fascination but it was not yet a real relationship, and after that we were together. And “Lovers [on the Bridge]” was so hard to make because of money issues and the journey of that film was such an experience of trust and resistence and muscles and belief… you really had to believe.
Anthony Minghella with “The English Patient” and “Breaking and Entering” — was also very different. He had become this huge director, recognised all over, he had another stature, whereas on ‘English Patient’ it was just an English director doing his first big film. When we make films usually there’s a lot of feelings between directors and actors, because you work with your heart and in the presence of each other. There was a lot of love but at the same time [the second time] I felt like I had lost him in some way. I mean, you don’t possess anyone, but it was not the same relationship we had…
And now you’re signed onto “Words and Pictures” for Fred Schepisi with Clive Owen?
It’s funny because that film, I read it and I kind of liked it, but I wasn’t sure, so I said no to it. Then they went with another actress and it didn’t work out, something happened and they came back again, and it feels like… it happens in life that something comes back to you and you don’t understand it until suddenly it’s “OK, I understand. Now I’m gonna do it.” They [had] reworked some of the script but I think mostly it’s me changing. Sometimes when things come back, you’ve got to think a little more…
In it you’ll play a painter. Will they be using your own paintings as has happened before [in “The Lovers on the Bridge” for example]?
Yes, well it seems that it’s going to be my paintings. [Panicked look] I’m going to have to get to work on them…