Camille Claudel 1915

France (2013) Dir. Bruno Dumont

Another overlooked figure from the French art world comes to my attention via a superbly made biopic, this time 19th century sculptor Camille Claudel, essayed here in an emotionally draining tour de force turn by the inestimable Juliette Binoche.

Camille’s work was overshadowed by her affair with fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin, to whom she fell pregnant but had the baby aborted. In 1905 Camille suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a mental asylum by her family in 1913.

Based on letters from her brother Paul’s and official medical records, this film is set two years into Camille’s stay at the asylum, a place she clearly feels she doesn’t belong, and aside from complete, stultifying boredom and the residual paranoia that Rodin and others were out to kill her by poisoning her food, Camille is demonstrably saner and less a hazard or burden to other people then the rest of her unfortunate patients. However her pious brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent) refuses to answer her pleas, deciding it is for the best she stays put, concluding this was divine punishment for the abortion twenty years earlier.

For writer-director Bruno Dumont this marks another foray into exploring the influence of religion in people’s lives, following on from previous works of Hors Satan and Hadewijch. The story of Camille Claudel may be a tenuous entry into this particular canon of Dumont’s but the indefatigable beliefs of her brother, as we learn, are the core reason she remained institutionalised until her death aged 79 in 1943.

Dumont could have gone for the full life story of Camille but that had already been done in a 1988 film starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, so this aspect is more fitting to his own interests and, true to form, he gets the most of it despite it only becoming relevant until the final act when Paul makes his first appearance. Prior to this we bear witness to the soporific and frustrating mundane life lived behind the walls of the Montdevergues Asylum in Montfavet, Avignon.

The patients are rarely left alone, ushered about by the nurses – who are dressed more like nuns, clad head to toe in black gowns – who do take care of their charges so no bullying Nurse Ratched treatment here, but Camille is insistent she can take care of herself. Some leniency is shown to Camille – she can cook her own food (a concession due to her fear of being poisoned) and is often asked to help walk the other patients when nurses are busy.

Played by real patients and shot in a genuine asylum, the other inmates are unfortunately portrayed as the stereotypical toothless dribbling, cross eyed types with irritating quirks which drives Camille nuts yet she feels a palpable empathy for them, only distancing herself from them purely for her own – forgive the pun- sanity. Despite this simplistic presentation, the patients are not on display for derision or mockery, but to show how Camille is perfectly “fine” while Dumont is keen to show that a human being lies behind the unfortunately damaged facade.

The crux of the emotional involvement of the audience is the treatment of Camille by her brother and not the asylum, the resident doctor (Robert Leroy) of which endorses Camille’s healthy status. Being a deeply devout man who prays every day and lives his life by the Bible, Paul’s judgement is clouded and influenced by how Camille’s prior lifestyle clash with the word of the Lord. So much for turning the other cheek…

From this we find ourselves sharing Camille’s frustration at being in a place she does not belong and we have a target for this in Paul, who is just as culpable as the system that allows this clear injustice to stand. Yet these were simpler times when basic depression was still considered a sign of madness, so if anything Dumont shows us how far we have advanced in terms of understanding and treatment.

The task of grabbing our attention and holding our emotional interest for the 91 minute duration falls on the experienced shoulders of Juliette Binoche, who lays herself bare in the name of her art. This is not a glamorous role but it is one in which Binoche pushes herself to find the humanity in her character which her surroundings are trying to bury. As Camille, she laughs, she cries, she screams, she broods, she ponders, she wonders, she observes, she suffers – yet she does so with a quiet grace and sense of personal dignity as she awaits a reply to her secret letter to her brother.

Even with Camille’s history never being revealed we feel we know enough about her and to believe in her solely from the fantastic portrayal Binoche delivers, the dialogue of which was largely improvised as Dumont apparently only gave her four pages of script to work from. Jean-Luc Vincent is given plenty of religious doctrine to spout off in defence of his treatment of his sister, and does so with the conviction of such a sanctimonious person, with little sign of genuine concern or sympathy for his sister’s plight. The patients also deserve our praise for allowing themselves to be publicly seen in such an unflattering light.

I’m not usually a fan of scenes of longueurs in which little happens but in this instance Dumont made the right call, as they add much to the daily struggle of the patients and the ennui they endure when they are denied any form of proper mental and physical stimulation.  Despite the dour subject and the austerity of the situations, Dumont directs with a sense of compassion and sensitivity, leaving it to the audience to decide how they should react.

Camille Claudel 1915 is a quietly affecting film that doesn’t hang its hat solely on the superlative central performance, appealing to our sympathetic sides with us a desperate tale of tragic figure.