Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)

Juliette Binoche

With a spectacular, single-handed performance from Juliette Binoche, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 looks at the pained loneliness of a woman put out to pasture.

Camille Claudel 1915

The Captive by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Not to be confused with Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 Isabelle Adjani biopic, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 is the second film to focus on the French sculptor caught between two famous and powerful men – her brother, the devoutly Catholic and conservative poet Paul Claudel and her illustrious lover and mentor Auguste Rodin. But focusing on Camille’s hospitalisation in a mental institute, the Great Sculptor isn’t even glimpsed here, besides as an elusive but powerful force pulling strings behind the scenes, sending some crooks to ransack her atelier. By the beginning of the 20th century, Claudel was loudly accusing Rodin of stealing her ideas. And it wasn’t long before she ended up in an insane asylum, the victim of a male conspiracy to have her hidden away and hushed up. But based on the correspondence between brother and sister as well as asylum records, Camille Claudel 1915 gives voice to a blood-curdling cry that at the time was neither heard nor seen.

Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche) returns to her Paris studio to find her sketches stolen. Distraught at her powerlessness in the face of her one-time lover of 15 years Auguste Rodin, she is committed by her family to a mental institute in Montdevergues. She’s bathed by the nuns, but for the most part left to her own devices, to while away the hours walking, drawing or crying. She eats apart from the other patients, given special dispensation to prepare her own food – so fearful is she that Rodin wants to poison her. And when she’s visited by her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), Camille is hopeful there might be some way out for her. But as Paul refuses to let her leave the asylum, Camille must come to terms with a life behind bars.

Filmed almost entirely within a psychiatric institute with real patients, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 is shocking in both its frankness and austerity. Of course, Dumont is no stranger to sombre stories of religious delusion, collusion and loneliness with his previous festival hits Hadewijch and Hors Satan. But with Juliette Binoche at the helm, sustaining the film almost single-handedly, Camille Claudel 1915 is a master-class in monologue performance, as we stumble from one agonising station on Camille’s Calvary to the next. The premise is petrifyingly simple – a woman, in her artistic prime and in full lucidity, locked up and treated as if she were mad. And the casting of real patients lends an uncomfortable reality to it, as we are forced to confront our own emotional reactions to these grotesque surroundings, intensifying the loneliness and claustrophobia in this portrait of a woman held captive.

Apart from a gripping performance from Juliette Binoche, Camille Claudel 1915 is a clever study of lucidity trapped in a mad world. While the nuns have their hands full with the other inmates, Camille lives in reclusive loneliness – where every day is like Sunday – silent and oppressive. Robbed of her wealth and inheritance, it’s Camille’s only wish that her torment in the asylum be over so that she can return to her work. But just as she waivers between lucidity and paranoia, her attempts to draw in the dirt or sculpt a figure from a piece of earth are quickly thrown aside, imperfect reflections of her former self. And so, reduced to an unwanted object, Camille becomes a scapegoat for her family’s politics – at odds with her artistic (and unmarried) lifestyle, seizing the opportunity to judge her and sentence her for her “appalling crime” of “killing her baby”. During her nearly thirty-year imprisonment, only her controlling and distanced brother Paul comes to visit her, ice cold to her intense passion. And while it’s poetry that makes a fissure in the walls of his materialist world, Paul fears it’s art that has led to Camille’s unhinged reality.

Camille Claudel is the living witness of the crimes committed by Rodin, her brother and her family. Or at least she thinks she is. But with her persecution mania and delusions of grandeur, Bruno Dumont leaves enough room for doubt that Camille Claudel’s reality may not be the only one. Nevertheless, she suffers. And staring long and hard into the camera, Camille penetrates us the viewer as much as Mademoiselle Lucas onscreen. We are helpless witnesses to her suffering, left to contemplate the moral implications of looking as we watch her cry. And we become another inmate, who Camille treats alternately with either hopeful openness or detached suspicion. Slowly robbed of her humanity and unable to bear any more, Camille Claudel in the hands of Binoche becomes a living statue – agonisingly contorted and heartbreakingly miserable. But in the wintry half-light of the south of France and with almost documentary austerity, it’s Dumont who casts this statue, swaddled in rough scarves and torn skirts, into the purest cinema.

Camille Claudel is released on 20th June 2014 in the UK

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