The French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) had a promising early career, but as she entered middle age, her behavior became increasingly erratic and paranoid. The last three decades of her life were spent in a mental hospital; the man responsible for keeping her there was her brother, the poet and statesman Paul Claudel, who graced the cover of Time magazine while his older sister languished away. Though Camille Claudel destroyed much of her own art, her institutionalization—as well as her lengthy relationship with fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin—continues to stoke interest in her life and work.
Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel, 1915 is set over the course of a few days as Claudel (Juliette Binoche) waits for her brother to pay her a visit. The first two-thirds of the movie follow her around the asylum grounds as she eats meals, watches other patients, and occasionally breaks out in fits of despair or religious ecstasy. The final third switches to Paul’s perspective, a kind of running monologue where he expounds on his devout Catholic faith. The climactic meeting between the siblings is pitched as a confrontation between repressed sensuality and unwavering dogma.
If that sounds simplistic, it’s because it is. Typically, Dumont’s movies build to impulsive acts—crimes, moments of forgiveness—that are steeped in mystery and symbolism; his worldview is a kind of secular mysticism where the paradoxical stands in for the divine. Camille Claudel, however, is a story of clear-cut wrongdoing and oppression, complicated only by its protagonist’s mental illness. As Paul Claudel, Jean-Luc Vincent projects robotic self-righteousness, as though his religious convictions had completely replaced his feelings.
Dumont’s use of real mental patients as Claudel’s fellow inmates borders on exploitation. Protracted close-ups of their faces are counter-posed with close-ups of Binoche; the patients’ otherness is emphasized. A pan from the toothless smile of a severely disabled woman to Binoche’s resigned face comes across as cheap and queasy. Whatever nuance the movie has, it owes to Binoche’s performance; despite the material and visual context, she’s able to convey a sense of contradiction and inner life. Even her vacant stares have subtleties. Too bad the same can’t be said of Dumont’s signature long takes, which come across as a narrative-stalling tactic.