Film Review: Camille Claudel 1915

Despite beautiful cinematography and Juliette Binoche in the title role, Bruno Dumont's biopic is a dull fictionalized depiction of three days of the eponymous sculptor's 30-year confinement.

Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 is set in an asylum where the French sculptor’s family has recently confined her, and where she would spend the remainder of her life. Unlike the movie to which it will inevitably be compared, Bruno Nuytten’s drama Camille Claudel (1988), Dumont’s contains no biographical information save a beginning intertitle. In fact, for viewers unfamiliar with Claudel’s work and the difficult circumstances over which she prevailed as a woman artist for much of her career, the story is hardly meaningful. Those well-versed in it will be disappointed in a portrait that condenses the whole of her emotional life into three days, most of which are spent in anticipation of a visit from her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent).

Aspiring to authenticity in its setting, with mentally ill patients and their real-life nurses posing as nuns, Dumont’s movie flirts with exploitation. One female patient is given a minor role, and a few of the nurses have spoken lines, but the decision to produce the movie under such circumstances is a conceit. Aside from Juliette Binoche, who plays Claudel and appears in every scene, Dumont is most concerned with the verdant countryside, which is spectacular, and the austere planes of the asylum’s architecture. Camille Claudel 1915 is a beautifully photographed film, although like many movies which pay so much attention to physical detail, it is oddly lifeless.

Except for two long speeches, one by Camille and the other by Paul, the movie consists of long takes of Camille boiling potatoes, or gazing out at the asylum walls, trying to find silence in an unbelievably noisy hospital. Binoche manages a few moments of intense emotion during a scene in which she observes patients engaged in an audition for Molière’s Don Juan—an unlikely choice in a Roman Catholic institution. Nonetheless, her laughter and, later, her tears during that scene, unconnected to any flashbacks or events unfolding in the film, are suggestive of nothing. And, viewed as a slice of life, Camille Claudel 1915 merely hints at the sculptor’s tragic confinement.

In real life, Claudel displayed bouts of paranoia, mostly involving her former lover Rodin; otherwise, she is as sane as Dumont portrays her. Over the years of her institutionalization, many physicians and hospital staff encouraged her family to release her from the asylum, as the head doctor of Montdevergues does in this movie. Paul and Madame Claudel ignored all of these recommendations; both resented Louis Prosper Claudel’s unflagging support of his daughter during his lifetime. Camille was institutionalized in 1913, a few weeks after his death.

Binoche, who has graced so many memorable movies, is here miscast, called upon to improvise with very little dialogue. Isabelle Huppert might have captured the essence of the 51-year-old sculptor, but Binoche lacks the tragic sensibilities to do so effectively. The actress called Dumont to say that she wanted to work with him; he happened to be reading about Claudel, and so proposed the project, his first biopic. Camille Claudel 1915 springs from the same deconstruction of drama that informs Abbas Kiarostami’s recent work in which Binoche has appeared—the creation of evanescent narratives which require audiences to project their own emotions onto the protagonist.

Nuytten’s Camille Claudel is a more comprehensive and entertaining movie, although it dwells for too long on the period of the sculptor’s mental breakdown. Its thesis is that Rodin’s refusal to marry Claudel, combined with her mother’s emotional abandonment of her and Paul’s condemnation of her aborted pregnancy, all led to her mental instability. Similar theories appear in biographies of the artist, supported by letters the siblings exchanged. Nuytten’s movie is also differentiated from Dumont’s by the fact that it garnered attention for Claudel’s work. While madness is a popular theme in artist biopics, Claudel never achieved the iconic status of, say, Van Gogh, plagued by mental illness and about whom there have been two major narrative films. It strikes one as disingenuous of Dumont to claim biographical integrity and depict nothing more than the beginning of Claudel’s decline.

Dumont then devotes over a third of the movie to Paul, who is a footnote in French history in comparison to Camille. Paul was a rabid anti-Semite, and so extreme in his Catholicism that he was rejected for admission to the most conservative Roman Catholic order of Benedictines. As the family patriarch, he jailed his sister for 30 years. In their one conversation in Camille Claudel 1915, anticipated by Camille through much of the film, Dumont portends emotion that never bubbles to the surface. Then this fiercely independent woman of uncommon genius implausibly accepts her fate, leading one to wonder if any filmmaker will recount Camille’s story so that the exploitation of her as a tragic figure can come to an end.