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Inspired by the correspondence of Paul and Camille Claudel.
Some people are destined to be footnotes in history: the lover of a writer, the sibling of an artist, the babysitter of a serial killer. Though the subjects of history—the writers, artists, and serial killers—tell us much about our past, it is often the footnotes who tell us what matters. Auguste Rodin is a famous sculptor whose work is known the world over—he even has a lovely single-artist museum in Paris. Camille Claudel—the subject, unsurprisingly, of Camille Claudel 1915—was his student, then his confidant and lover. Her brother, too, as a poet and diplomat, had a minor brush with celebrity at the turn of the twentieth century. She, however, has largely been relegated to footnote status, with apparent mental illness the culprit. Her example teaches us that creative genius in women was often confused with madness, especially when the woman in question was content to lead a life outside the norm (including an abortion that ended her relationship with Rodin). What Bruno Dumont captures in his Camille Claudel 1915 is the rawness of her situation, while delicately playing with the line between genius and madness.
Facts of the Case
In 1913, after the death of her father, Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent) had his sister Camille (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient) committed. Camille Claudel 1915 takes place two years later, over a few days leading up to one of Paul's infrequent visits to his sister. Though Camille may be mad, it's also clear that she's the least ill person in the primitive institution. Based largely on her letters, Camille Claudel, 1915 paints an excruciating portrait of personal torment.
Around the time that Camille Claudel 1915 was wending its way through scant distribution in America, Juliette Binoche all but announced her retirement from acting. Her complaint is a common one—roles for young women are boring and narrow, a phenomenon that only grows worse as an actress ages. She claimed there just aren't any interesting roles being offered to women of her age. If she sets her standards based on projects like Camille Claudel 1915, then she's sure to be doubly disappointed. Rarely do we find a film this willing to linger on a single female protagonist, let alone one as tormented as Camille. One of the problems that confronts psychology is the question of whether paranoia is ever justified: Are you really paranoid if they're all out to get you? That was exactly Claudel's situation in the late 1800s: she broke rules, sculpted with genius, didn't live according to convention. Unsurprisingly she was ostracized, commented upon, and found herself the subject of disapproval from family and society. When her staunchest supporter (her father) died, it's not surprising that Camille would have difficulty coping. However, it's an open question as to whether she was mad, and if she was, did she not need to be as a response to her situation?
Herein lies the genius of Binoche's performance. She rides a fine line, not caricaturing the usual associations with madness, nor does she present us with a misunderstood genius who has absolutely no business in a madhouse. Instead, Binoche makes us feel the horror that her body and soul are subjected to—surrounded by austerity, genuine mental illness, and the isolation from friends, loved ones, and the supplies of her art. Even if she had been perfectly sane in 1913, by 1915 Binoche makes it clear that at least a little madness is necessary to survive her situation. Part of that survival hinges on the visits of Paul, her brother, whom she views as her only link to the wider world. It's devastating to watch Binoche cope with this level of torment.
This is not the first time that Camille Claudel's story has been brought to the big screen. The previous attempt, in 1989, took in the full scope of Claudel's life story, especially her romantic involvement with Rodin. Though I can see the temptation to go that route with the story, making it about a tragic fall from grace, that's not the path of Bruno Dumont. Dumont's cinema has always been much rawer than a romantic story about two artistic geniuses would allow. That's proved amply by Camille Claudel 1915. His stark, almost bare style keeps the focus on Camille—surprisingly that starkness never feels clinical, like we're supposed to watch and evaluate a patient. Instead, his focus makes sympathy with Camille's situation even easier, as we're put through the same austerity she must suffer.
The film also gets a decent DVD release. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer does a fine job supporting the de-saturated landscapes and interiors of the film. The overall film has a slightly blue-gray cast to it, and the lack of bright colors helps reinforce Camille's difficulty. Detail is generally strong, and black levels stay consistent and deep. Overall, the transfer has a surprisingly film-like quality. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track in French is similarly good. The stark visuals are complimented by a mix that keeps dialogue sound clear but is otherwise minimalist.
Extras include a trailer for the film, as well as a small gallery of stills.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's nothing fun about Dumont's cinema. He makes dark, almost oppressive films. Though he's obsessed, as the title of one of his films would suggest, with humanity, his perspective is not a cheery one. Though perhaps ultimately hopeful, Camille Claudel 1915, like other Dumont films, can be a chore to sit through. The unrelenting horror of Claudel's situation is palpable, and those looking for an entertaining biopic should probably look elsewhere.
Though I like Dumont's focus in the film, his choice does leave viewers lacking in the scope of Claudel's life. She was already almost 50 when she was committed, and she remained confined for thirty years before dying at the age of 78. I'm not sure how he would have accomplished it, but some greater sense of Claudel's life before and after might have comforted some viewers, or at least given them a better understanding of just how horrible her confinement was, coming after great success and ending after thirty years of confinement.
Some might also be uncomfortable that the film was shot in an actual asylum, with real patients as "extras." It gives a certain reality to the film, but also could easily feel exploitative for some.
Camille Claudel 1915 is a consummate art house picture—the acting and visual presentation are stunning, the subject potent, dramatic, and historical. Those looking for a well-acted foreign film, or fans of Dumont's previous work would do well to seek this film out, while those who want a more romantic or conventional biopic should look elsewhere.
Gut-wrenching, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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