Film Review: Rodin

Chilly biopic of the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin gets low-key, classy treatment, as befits its inexpressive, dedicated protagonist with an eye for detail and another for the ladies. Beaucoup nudité raises some heat.
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It’s entirely possible that writer-director Jacques Doillon’s Rodin will find sufficient viewers among art aficionados, history buffs eager for any perspective of mid-19th-century France and cinephiles attracted to lovely French films (cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne and veteran composer Philippe Sarde supply much of the attraction here). And even aspiring sculptors might mine insights into the art from this half-baked cinematic mound. But, dramatically and emotionally deficient, this art-house entry may fail to land the minimum bid and lure buyers.

The narrative begins in 1840 Paris, where the 40-year-old Auguste Rodin (Vincent Lindon) gets his first state commission, a large, ornate museum portal called “The Gates of Hell,” and works on it in his expansive studio space. (The work is never finished, but sections of it, like “The Kiss” and “The Thinker,” will go on to sustain his reputation.)

A number of women move about his studios over the decades depicted. Most prominent is his gifted young pupil Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin), who is also a lover and becomes his assistant. She will also grow bitter and paranoid as the boss’ reputation grows. (Not seen in the film, Claudel will go on to her own fame after much turmoil and become the subject of at least two French film bios). In Rodin, Claudel leaves her lover/mentor all too suddenly. That the film delivers this dramatic turn almost as a fait accompli is just one of its missed moments.

Rodin’s other steady among his many dalliances is his longtime stay-at-home partner and housekeeper, the saturnine Rose Beuret (Séverine Caneele), a former seamstress with the look of a horsey peasant woman and a nasty streak heightened by Claudel’s role in Rodin’s life.

Rodin apparently takes the Claudel breakup comme ça, continuing to toil like the workaholic he is and dealing with an artist’s expected ups and downs. An episode involving his commission of a statue of the great writer Honoré de Balzac embodies both. Balzac resents both Rodin’s depiction of him and the art world in general, specifically its sensuality and originality (qualities that ultimately brought Rodin fame). Yet the Balzac piece apparently became a life-changer. The film’s coda makes a startling shift from a muted palette suited to clay-strewn spaces and a faded 19th century to full outdoor color in contemporary Japan, where the Balzac statue, symbolizing ars longa vita brevis, now lives.

Throughout Rodin, bold-faced personalities in the sculptor’s life (Rilke, Monet, Cézanne, Hugo, photographer Edward Steichen, et al.) fail to resonate as they pass through with little more context than an event name-dropping item in a society gossip column. Also symptomatic of the dramatic challenges here are the film’s frequent Rodin voiceovers and fadeouts.

Doillon had inherent challenges to deal with. While paintings can be a fine match for film’s visual power, sculpture is largely monochromatic and better appreciated live, where it’s spatial and 3D assets might be better appreciated. Plus, the versions of Rodin’s works we see are often slabs rather than finished , which take years to complete. Fortunately, Beaucarne’s cinematography gets plenty of mileage, daring to fill the wide screen but often capturing the power of light within so pale a palette.

Just as challenging is Lindon’s Rodin, surely historically based but hardly the stuff of interpretative drama peopled with protagonists we love or love to hate. Lindon, with credits in over 70 films, is one of France’s finest actors, having delivered brilliant performances in films like Cannes winner The Measure of a Man and Mademoiselle Chambon. But his fans get a largely mute Lindon-lite. His Rodin, a quiet multi-tasker, is a man of few words and much nookie. The artist silently exudes creative power and determination and possesses great visual acuity, strong memory and a gift for deep and lingering concentration. Such qualities are not helpful on the cinematic front.

If the sculptures don’t convey the sensuality of many Rodin works, the film’s many nude female figures serve as stand-ins (or lie-ins). When not concentrating intensely on his work, the artist enjoys breaks facilitated by the large unmade bed adjacent to the studio’s work areas, where various young people flutter about, suggesting Rodin’s female groupies. The fluidity of terms applied to them—students, pupils, assistants, associates, models, lovers—further blurs. That the sculptor’s frequent paramours appear willing partners saves Rodin and Rodin from being a pile-up of #MeToo moments.

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