Director Bruno Dumont (“The Life of Jesus,” “Outside Satan“) has made a name for himself with challenging, sometimes controversial films that often feature non-professional actors and considered, not to say glacial, pacing interrupted with scenes of violence. But with “Camille Claudel 1915” he abandons some aspects of that approach while ever more fully indulging others. So for the first time he has a name star in Juliette Binoche, who turns in a reliably committed and remarkably naked performance as the titular Claudel, but here Dumont slows the pace of the action to almost nil, and punctuates it only with long talky tracts until the film becomes either a masterpiece of the “slow and boring” school of cinema, or an occasionally excruciating form of Chinese water torture, depending on your point of view. Unlike our Indiewire colleague Eric Kohn, whose almost beat-for-beat contrasting review you can read here, we unfortunately fall more into the latter camp.
The film is based on the letters of Camille Claudel, sculptress and erstwhile lover of Auguste Rodin, and her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), a noted poet and dramatist of the day. But while Camille in her youth led anything but a dull life, rebelling against the wishes of her mother to pursue her artistic ambitions, impressing her teacher Rodin with her talent and application, becoming his lover for 15 tempestuous years before the affair ended in a blaze of paranoia and disillusionment when he refused to leave his wife for her, Dumont chooses to place his focus on a brief period in her life many years after that, in the tedium and routine of the institution to which her family had her committed.
Choosing 1915, because that was the year that Claudel would have been the age Binoche was at the time of shooting, Dumont sets the majority of the film within the walls of Montdevergues, a facility for the mentally incapacitated run by nuns, and covers roughly three days during which Camille awaits a visit from Paul. Dumont has not wholly abandoned his trademark use of non-professionals, though, and here Camille’s fellow inmates at the asylum are played by actual mentally disabled patients, and the sisters who run the institution (not unkindly, it should be noted) are played by their nurses. This leads to some extraordinarily uncomfortable scenes in which Dumont’s camera, usually obsessed, like so many of her directors, with Binoche’s face, leaves Camille to focus on one of these inmates. Of course this device is used to reinforce Camille’s difference from these women and to press home the injustice of her situation and how little she belongs there. But it also foregrounds these real-life disabilities and disadvantages to a further degree – at some point the lingering close-ups on the other patients’ faces become prurient by contrast with what we know is a performance from Binoche, good as she is.
But even this discomfort is not the most central barrier to engagement here – for us it was simply boredom. Binoche can be truly mesmerizing on occasion, but we had begun to tire of watching even her pray or burst into sudden tears or boil potatoes or sit on a bench. And while she’s given a couple of scenes in which she instead radiates happiness (because of Paul’s impending visit) – and we’re never sick of seeing melancholic heroine Binoche play radiant with happiness – for the rest of the time she is operating within the darker end of the spectrum, and we start to long for some change.
But then change comes and we wish it hadn’t. It’s when the film shifts its focus away from her and onto Paul that to us it becomes just unforgivably dull. First we get a long static shot of him from behind, writing at a desk while in voiceover he reads out what he’s writing – a dry and tonelessly prim meditation on God and duty and Rimbaud and honestly we’ve forgotten what else. The scene is interminable, as is the next one of Paul monologuing on much the same topics to a priest as they walk a country lane. Slowly. His piety and charmlessness and talent for self-justification in the name of God firmly and at great length established, we finally return to Camille, and build to the climactic scene of their meeting, which plays out as this climax was bound to do… anticlimactically.
Despite Binoche’s full inhabitation of the role, we had a really hard time maintaining our attention across a 95 minutes that seemed so, so much longer. And of course getting a sense of the tedium and repetition of her existence in the absence of her art (Claudel would never sculpt again, and was destined to never see the outside of the institution – dying there some 29 years later) is part of the point. But in stretching our interest so thinly and seemingly willfully testing our concentration to its limit and beyond, the film makes distant what surely should be vital and alive. Claudel’s treatment was a tragedy, a grotesque parody of piety and an act of terrible cruelty, which caused the loss of a great talent, but it’s a loss to which the film’s approach progressively deadens us. [C+]