French director Bruno Dumont works in an elliptical manner. Though he consistently works with powerful visuals, his work requires an audience with an open mind and some patience. His latest, Camille Claudel, 1915, though somewhat based on true events, remains no exception. It stars Juliette Binoche as the titular sculptor turned committed psych patient. As noted by the year in the film’s title, the story focuses on her early years at an asylum in Montdevergues (she would die there, her body interred in a communal grave, in 1943).
She was placed at the psychiatric hospital against her will by her family. Her younger brother, the poet Paul Claudel, co-signed the papers. He was also the only person who would visit her. Often, years would go by between visits.
As Dumont is no ordinary filmmaker, Camille Claudel, 1915 is no ordinary biopic. The drama focuses on only three days. Early in the film, Camille receives word of one of Paul’s visits. She has high hopes he will agree to discharge her. In the meantime, she waits.
Left to languish, she often sits alone when she is not helping the nuns attend to other patients (all are played by actual nuns and real mental patients). She mostly suffers quietly between manic periods of elation at the impending visit and tearful fits of sadness over her abandonment. There are also outbursts of frustration and moments when she finds some reserve to offer care to the other patients. It all speaks to her strength as a powerful woman trapped in the wrong time.
Binoche does far more than emote. The script, credited to Dumont, is mostly based on improvisation after Binoche studied Camille’s letters. She brings intensity to a few standout monologue sequences, which Dumont treats with the utmost respect by not allowing for a single cut to break her performance. He has placed much trust in Binoche, and she delivers. As Paul, Jean-Luc Vincent also delivers, despite his lack of acting experience. Though he plays a seemingly composed, well-put-together man, an impressive question arises from his moments of speechifying. As he reveals an almost zealous devotion to God, one has to wonder who is more insane, the brother or sister?
Dumont never overtly presents this question. After all, his is the language of visuals and sounds, and he packs much baggage into his film through mostly extended scenes that sometimes feature no dialogue. As always, his shots are not only immaculately composed but loaded with meaning. His camera angles are occasionally askew, representing a world misaligned. Camille’s complexity is exposed as much with her actions as reflected by the mentally disabled around her. They stand as living, breathing fun house mirrors. As Mademoiselle Lucas laughs maniacally, her gaping mouth exposes a large hole in her front teeth. Camille stares back with a mix of curiosity and resilient reserve.
As with his other films, Dumont seems fascinated by asymmetrical faces. He even shoots Binoche at an angle that highlights a raised eyebrow and crooked lips, a visual appearance hardly emphasized in other films featuring the 49-year-old actress. Dumont allows the camera to sit on many faces, inviting contemplation, despite some uncomfortable scenes that highlight the grotesque appearance of the patients.
One of the film’s more multi-dimensional scenes features Camille sitting in a chair as sunlight bathes her through a curtain. Dumont carefully cuts to the carpet, a wall covered in ornate wallpaper, a fidgety, elderly patient on one side and a stiff, grinning woman on another. All the images feature some variation of sunlight and shadow. It’s an expressionistic scene that is as much about an internal representation as it is a staged moment. What these images and their sequence mean are given to the viewer to consider into the loose plotting of the film.
One cannot also fail to notice the significance of the landscape in the films of Dumont. Camille Claudel, 1915 is no exception. Dumont loves utilizing the wild brush of the landscape, and a day trip out to the top of a dusty hill with the wind blowing through the desolate land implies the artists’s lack. Early in the film, an enormous, dead tree in a courtyard greets Camille when she excuses herself to sit outside. Its gnarly, brittle branches reach toward a heaven that seems non-existent, as we all know there will be no redemption for poor Camille in her lifetime.
As with his previous film, Outside Satan (read my review: Bruno Dumont’s ode to the land ‘Outside Satan’ – a film review), Dumont stages much of his action outdoors. During Paul’s travels to visit his sister, he stops to speak with a priest. They walk among unkempt brush, as Paul speaks about his Catholic enlightenment. Meanwhile, the overwhelming nature crowds them onto a strict path. Dumont is a naturalist who often relies on the magic hour to light his scenes, and it’s clear he adores shooting the outdoors. Indoors, he’s all about symmetry, and when he shows Paul inside a cathedral it marks a breathtakingly beautiful moment. But, just as he loves crooked faces, Dumont seems to prefer the random quality of nature, and he harnesses it to evocative effect with an unparalleled ease.
Claudel’s love affair with Auguste Rodin was well-known, and his work overshadowed hers. References to the affair emerge in the film to heart-breaking effect that only further highlight this poor artist’s abandonment. During a brief therapy session with a doctor where Camille implores for her release, expressing her sense of betrayal by her family and Rodin, the doctor ends it by stating, “Your relationship with Rodin ended 20 years ago. We’ll see you in a week.”
Despite the film’s rather tragic tone, Dumont has intense sympathy for Camille. This is not some emotional torture porn flick, this is a humanist tale fueled by tragic affection for the titular subject. Throughout the film he celebrates Claudel as he suppresses her. She was a kinetic force whose creativity was cut short confined for too many years before a rather pathetic end. Covering only a brief period, Dumont pays intense respect to not only a singular artist but a creative energy squandered to man’s zealous determination to control. Camille Claudel, 1915 stands as a rather beautiful piece of mourning for the loss of creativity.
Camille Claudel, 1915 runs 95 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is unrated (expect some brief nudity and language). It opens exclusively in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Nov. 8, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.