Director: Bruno Dumont
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent, Emmanuel Kauffman, Marion Keller, Robert Leroy
Written by: Bruno Dumont, (based on the letters) Camille Claudel and Paul Claudel
Running Time: 95 mins
Release date: 20th June 2014
What makes being a film critic interesting is the amount you learn. I knew very little about Camille Claudel, except that she was a sculptor. I didn’t know about her affair with fellow artist Auguste Rodin or that she was locked away in an asylum. It wasn’t until I saw Bruno Dumont’s extraordinary film that I have become interested in her story because, on the surface of this slow-moving yet mesmerising film, I want to find out more.
Camille Claudel is languishing in an asylum in the South of France. Forced there by her family after having an affair with fellow sculptor Rodin, Claudel waits patiently for her brother, Paul, to arrive in the hope that he will get her released. She feels she doesn’t belong, even though she is riddled with paranoia, refusing anyone to cook her food for fear of poisoning. Three long days she waits for a chance to be let out into the world but will her overly religious brother bring with him the hope she longs for.
Let’s get this out there right now: Camille Claudel 1915 isn’t like the fast-paced, quick-cut edited film you expect to see in the multiplexes. Far from it. Dumont takes his time to set up shots and then leaves the camera lingering long as the scenes play out. A sequence in a corridor, in which Camille sits while other inmates arrive to go for a walk, seems to go on forever. While this might frustrate many, it works in favour of this film, as it captures the monotony and dull routine of Camille’s day-to-day life.
It also manages to pull you into her seemingly exasperating life. This is only supposed to represent three days in her time at the asylum and you find yourself thinking that even after that, it would make you slowly go mad. The silence, the almost military regularity of the day, the fact that knowing you don’t belong and yet not being able to do anything about it. Even the nuns who run the place and the doctor can see that Camille doesn’t belong there and yet it is out of their power to do anything about it.
It’s a heartbreaking story full of scenes that make it all the more shocking and emotional. Camille, who was a talented sculptor, finds herself even losing that ability. In one scene she tries to make a bird out of a lump of mud only to see it crumble in her fingers. It’s a scene that, while there is no dialogue and no emotive music to help, shows a woman slowly becoming a shell of her former self.
Mostly played in silence, with very little dialogue, Dumont creates an atmosphere of solitude yet surrounds his film with extraordinary performances. The staff and patients of the asylum are superb, giving the feeling of total authenticity. Jean-Luc Vincent, as Camille’s brother, Paul, comes across as a crazed and confused man driven by religion, even though, as he announces, his passion started with the poems of Rimbaud, known for their blasphemous contents than their praise for Christianity.
At the heart of the film is Juliette Binoche. This is a tremendous performance in which the actress goes through a huge amount of emotional states, mostly without saying a word. The camera stays on her for long periods and we witness her slow decline, sometimes making it almost uncomfortable to watch. As highly regarded as Binoche is and the superb work she has produced in the past, this is the pinnacle of her career, an angst-ridden creation full of pathos and deep-rooted emotion and I doubt we will see anything better this year.
This isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and some might struggle with the pacing and, to an extent, the content but this is a film that should be looked out for and one that will satisfy. It may even make you want to find out more about Camille Claudel. A sublime, powerful piece with a winning central performance.