Directed by: Bruno Dumont.
Written by: Bruno Dumont.
Starring: Juliette Binoche (Camille Claudel), Jean-Luc Vincent (Paul Claudel), Robert Leroy (The Doctor), Emmanuel Kauffman (The Priest), Marion Keller (Miss Blanc), Armelle Leroy-Rolland (The Young Novice).
Director Bruno Dumont is known for his films that take faith and religion seriously, even if he has stated he wants art to replace religion (good luck with that one Bruno). His films are typically filled with long, static shots, populated by non-professional actors, often contain shocking acts of violence and/or sex and have events that cannot be fully explained – at least not by Dumont. More often than not, he leaves it up to the viewer to decide what actually happened.
His latest, Camille Claudel 1915 differs from his previous films in two important ways – one makes the film better, and one worse. The first way it differs is that he has cast the wonderful Juliette Binoche in the title role. Dumont must have realized that the demands of the role would be too much for a non-professional, and he was right. While often his films go long stretches with no one saying a word, Camille Claudel delivers more than one lengthy monologue in this film that would undo most professional actors – but Binoche handles well. Unfortunately, it is the other difference between Dumont’s previous films and this one that ultimately undoes the film. Most of the time, Dumont makes complex movies, that either have no answer at its core or at least leaves it to the audience to decide. In Camille Claudel 1915, he has clearly made a film about an injustice – and leaves no real room for ambiguity. The film is far more simple and straight forward than most of what we normally get from Dumont.
The film centers on a few days in the life of Camille Claudel – an artist in her own right, but one perhaps best known as the longtime lover, muse and collaborator of the infamous Auguste Rodin. The 1988 film, Camille Claudel (unseen by me) tells the story of her life with Rodin in a more conventional, biopic form (and earned Isabelle Adjani an Oscar nomination – a rarity for a foreign film) – and ends before this film even begins – which is 20 years after her relationship with Rodin ended, and two years after her stay in a mental asylum, where she was placed by her family- represented here by her little brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent). The film deals with just a few days in her life as she waits for Paul to arrive, confident that he will see she doesn’t belong there, and take her away.
The film makes is abundantly clear that Camille does not belong there at all. True, she is a little paranoid but that’s about all. But compared to the rest of the residents of the asylum, she is clearly healthy. Dumont’s penchant for using non-professional actors is present in the film – as Dumont films in an actual asylum and used actual residents there to highlight the difference between them and Claudel. To a degree this is effective – it clearly highlights the difference between Camille and the other residents of the asylum. But to me, it took me out of the movie, as I could not help but think Dumont was exploiting these poor people, who quite clearly have little to no idea what is going on around them.
The reason to see the film is Binoche – who is wonderful as Claudel. Yes, she is paranoid, but she in no way belongs in the asylum where she is placed. Twice – once near the beginning and once near the end – Dumont gives Binoche long, impassioned monologues where she pleads her case for her own insanity – only to have those pleas fall on deaf ears. Binoche lays herself bare in the role, and she delivers a wonderful performance. Unfortunately for her, the rest of the movie does not match her level of excellence.
It’s clear from the beginning of the film that Claudel does not belong in the asylum. The movie makes this point over and over again, as it really has no other point to make. We sit around and wait for Paul to arrive, so we can have the big confrontation the movie is building to, yet when he does arrive, the movie grinds to a halt. This is because we are introduced to Paul, and have to sit through his own long monologue (a voice over of what he’s writing at first, and then his long prayer as he kneels by the side of the road). Paul is precisely the type of religious figure Dumont usually avoids in his movies – a one note fanatic, who is easily dismissed because his sense of religion is so dogmatic and unyielding. We know Camille has no chance convincing Paul to sign her release papers – but she holds out hope in vain.
I suppose one could argue the movie is effective. Dumont’s point is to make us feel as claustrophobic as Camille herself – confined to her small room, with no privacy, no distractions from the drudgery of her day-to-day existence, surrounded by people who either cannot or will not listen to her or treat her as a normal person. And he does that. And Binoche, as always, is wonderful in the lead role. But Camille Claudel 1915 left me somewhat cold. It didn’t engage me intellectually like most of Dumont’s films do, because everything in the film is so straightforward and simple. Camille Claudel didn’t belong in a mental institution, but was put there anyway where she suffered for 30 years. That’s a tragedy to be sure, but Dumont’s film is too cold to be effective. It is precisely the type of film he doesn’t usually make – and now we know why.