As a world cinema offering from France, The 21st Annual Hamptons International Film Festival screened Camille Claudel 1915 for its New York premiere. The film is in French with subtitles, and stars the brilliant Juliette Binoche as French sculptress Camille Claudel and Jean-Luc Vincent as her brother the poet, diplomat Paul Claudel. Bruno Dumont provides his always incisive and thought-provoking direction.
The film’s time frame is three days in the life of Camille Claudel who has spent the last two years interred like a dead woman in a stark and punitive asylum near Avignon, which with it’s very peaceful and beautiful rolling hills and stone garden walls would appear to be restful and soothing. Thanks to Dumont, they are not. They are a blasted landscape at the tale end of winter. They mirror the interior and exterior life of Claudel which are in fact one and the same, bleak, monochromatic, empty, waiting for a season that will never come. Dumont’s setting intimates Camille’s future. There will be no spring, summer or beauteous fall for her as long as she is in this hell hole where her fellows and her neighbor patients are like demons and trolls in their demented states. (Dumont purportedly didn’t use actors for these roles and whenever possible, used nonprofessionals for their non filmic faces.)
Claudel is in a living death waiting for her brother Paul to visit and redeem her. Every movement is monitored; the sisters (nun-caretakers) know where she is at all times, She is like a tethered animal held with invisible ropes. She is prevented the freedom to roam independently or the autonomy to create her own activities, including making her art. The sole exception is that she has been given permission to cook her own food, a staple which all inmates receive, boiled potatoes, because she fears she is being poisoned. This slight diversion of the water boiling the potatoes is activity, but the food is as restrictive and monotonous as every minute that passes until the potatoes are done, throbbing out the tastelessness of her existence.
Even in her diminished, haggard and miserable state, we empathize with our hero played moment to moment with expressive inner/outer depth which Dumont has teased out of Binoche’s performance, highlighted by the realistic lighting and minimalistic interiors. Camille Claudel is beautiful in her extreme suffering. She is the only sane, sensitive one amongst her tragic “peers” who can neither express themselves nor reveal any coherent thought about their condition or state. They are dressed in loose fitting robes nearer to rags and only Camille is dressed in normal clothing for the time period, though it appears frayed and like everything else lacks the vibrance and vitality of color.
Immediately, as the film opens and we understand the setting, we wonder why she is there… like Camille who cries out against her internment and questions why she has been abandoned by her family. Though an indie film audience will most likely be familiar with the biography of Camille Claudel, the amazing French sculptress, graphic artist, feminist maverick and mistress of Rodin, it is not entirely necessary to know her background. One is able to appreciate the profound characterization and thematic complexity of what Dumont and Binoche are doing in this film.
Not only does its slow moving and laborious pace reflect the syphoning away of this once marvelous talent, a draining of her very lifeblood itself, it indicates the intensity, the heightened experience that the artistic sensibility would feel in such a place. Dumont puts us through this hellish time with Camille. We feel its laborious wasting, we feel her hopeless abandonment. This is not a place where anything can live or thrive, least of all an artist. How she is able to hang on to any semblance of rationality is a miracle. (The film’s borderline ponderousness, was too much for some audience members who left.) Indeed, it is a testament of her self-control and temperance that Camille Claudel remains coherent and sensitive to her surroundings and the other patients with whom she is kind. Dumont subtly indicates this rationality as a counterpoint to the baleful injustice of her imprisonment. A lesser mind and soul would have grown aggressive, intemperate and would probably have needed restraints.
The film in real time tries the audience’s soul and spirit. It is one of the conditions that Dumont gets us to experience, as Camille Claudel’s artistic, female soul and spirit are being tried and perfected by intense suffering, a theme of Catholicism. Dumont must take us this route for a number of reasons. One is that we can completely understand Camille’s hopeful anticipation and near spiritual fervor as the time approaches for her brother Paul’s visit. She believes it will end in her deliverance and release from this living hell. As she greatly longs for it, so do we. In fact we expect it after the doctor affirms that she should be released, that though she has delusions, she is not a danger to herself or others and there is no logical reason why she is there with these types of inmates. She only needs a family member to sign her out and provide some help for her.
Leaving Camille, the film narration shifts to Paul Claudel’s perspective. As he visits a clergyman, we discover he has received enlightenment and grace, a kind of soul rebirth. He justifies why Camille is the way she is, noting that they are similar, but that he has been able to receive redemption whereas she remains in her delusions because of her pride. Because of his newly found grace, we are lead to believe that Camille’s hopefulness will bring fruition and he will sign her out of hell, especially after his beatific discussion with his spiritual adviser.
Dumont and Binoche carry us to Camille’s endgame: a lifetime of suffering. Paul Claudel refuses to release her despite the doctor’s suggestions, despite her pleas, despite his own redemption which we realize is hollow to the core. With swelling words of religious piety, he has transfigured himself into the personification of wickedness. There has indeed been a reversal. Camille’s suffering has been elevated to a holy kind of artistry as she remains on the cross in this asylum to benefit her brother’s delusional justification for keeping her there, possibly out of envy and paternalism.
Camille Claudel is the artist of the family whose work is honored in museums, what little of it remains. Her life has been written about extensively and has inspired two films and a musical. Dumont’s is the second film The first Camille Claudel made in 1988 highlighted her life and relationship with Rodin, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu as Rodin. Indeed, historically, Camille Claudel receives the greatest empathy and praise, not Paul Claudel. Paul Claudel and their mother are the villains. Paul and a doctor originally signed to have Camille “voluntarily” (She never agreed.) committed and he and his mother wanted her confined forever. After their mother died, though doctors, noted friends and hospital staff vouched for her sanity declaring she didn’t belong in an institution, Paul Claudel disregarded their reports and kept her locked away, visiting every two or three years. The screenplay for Camille Claudel 1915 is based on their letters.