There is not a glimpse of Camille Claudel’s graceful,
eloquent sculptures in Camille Claudel
1915. But in an especially wrenching scene, as Claudel
walks on the grounds of the asylum for mental patients where she will needlessly
stay for decades, she picks up a piece of mud, begins to sculpt it in one hand
like clay, then throws it to the ground as if it were an unbearable memory of
her former life. Once the muse, student
and lover of Rodin, the Claudel we see
in 1915 — so quietly and affectingly
brought to life by Juliette Binoche — is not some stereotypical artist lost in
a mad hallucination, but a tragic woman whose family callously keeps her
entrapped long after she needs the asylum’s protection.
Rigorous and disturbing — sometimes in unintentional ways
— Bruno Dumont’s film focuses on Claudel’s daily routine during a few days when
she is anticipating a rare visit from her brother, the poet Paul Claudel. Based
on the letters of Paul and Camille, and using actual patients from a
psychiatric hospital, this low-key film achieves an unsettling authenticity.
We first see Claudel being dragged unwillingly into a bath
in the asylum, an isolated place in the South of France, resembling a
monastery. She boils eggs for her dinner
because she fears the kitchen staff is trying to poison her, and tells her doctor
that followers of Rodin, whom she hasn’t seen in years, have stolen work from
her studio. Yet these bursts of paranoia puncture a tortured lucidity. She
clearly does not belong in the company of the other patients, women who growl instead
of speak and bang their spoons on a table at dinnertime.
Although the presence of these real-life patients adds a
layer of reality, as Dumont intended, the film can’t escape the tinge of
exploitation. The patients were even told to call Binoche “Camille” to avoid any accidental slips on camera. How
much did they really understand? Does Alexandra Lucas (photo above), as a woman who wants to be
Claudel’s friend, understand that when “Camille” snaps at her angrily
and pushes her away, Juliette Binoche was just acting?
But there is nothing to fault in Binoche’s delicate, heartbreaking
performance as a woman still caught between hope and hopelessness. Dumont’s visual
style is subdued, his camera calm and deliberate in frequent close-ups of
Binoche’s face. Speaking to the camera, she becomes a haunting presence.
Late in the film, her brother (Jean-Luc Vincent) appears,
which explains some of the awful family dynamics. By then Paul is so caught up
in religion that he stops his car by the side of the road to pray. Writing a
letter that judges Camille harshly for having had an abortion, he embodies self-satisfied, proud superiority
masquerading as humility before God.
It helps to know something of Camille Claudel’s past and work
before watching the film. Even when she lived in Rodin’s shadow, she made her
way as an artist with a style of her own. That knowledge makes it even sadder to
witness the sadness, isolation and entrapment she endured for so long after.