Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)

Bruno Dumont has a certain directorial style that he’s developed from his debut, La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus, 1997), focusing on the corporeality and mortality of a central character, and through them channelling an immanent sense of divinity, often employing long steady unflinching takes of his actors. I greatly admired that debut and its even more expansive follow-up, Humanité (Humanity, 1999), and the idea of casting Juliette Binoche in this, his latest film, seems a natural fit to the kinds of themes he explores. Binoche, after all, seems to specialise in films which just watch her face as she goes through mental anguish and turmoil. There’s certainly plenty of that here, where she plays the title character, a sculptor who has been confined to a psychiatric asylum in rural France.

The character and story of Claudel is a real one, and though she had spent two years of her life in the asylum by the time the film starts (and it is set over just a handful of days), she would spend the rest of her life in this place. This is part of the tragedy that Binoche’s expressive face conveys, and there’s little enough dialogue over the film’s running time, being mostly focused on her internal struggle. Binoche is of course very good at these roles, and she gets into character as the wan but hardly browbeaten Claudel impressively, so it’s perhaps more I as the audience who has trouble enduring this kind of chamber piece. After all, truth be told, I haven’t been a fan of her more famous earlier roles in the same vein either (think Trois couleurs: Bleu 20 years ago for example).

Complicating the scenario further is Dumont’s use of real psychiatric patients, most of them in quite an extreme state of mental disarray (in contrast to Claudel, who seems lucid by contrast; she can at least hold a conversation). These actors are marshalled like decoration, clamouring around Binoche and giving the whole enterprise a vaguely exploitative air, though I suppose one could equally well say that it all heightens the pathos of Claudel’s situation. Those playing the staff of the asylum (doctors and orderlies) all have a sort of inexpressive naturalness to them, coming across like Robert Bresson’s use of untrained non-actors (whom he called ‘models’).

Perhaps it’s only fair to say that one’s liking for this film may depend on how much one enjoys Binoche’s solo performances. She comes across as a kind of ‘holy fool’ figure, resisting the forces of orthodoxy that the asylum (and her brother) imposes, and though the film is impressively focused, I can’t say I enjoyed it exactly.

Camille Claudel 1915 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Bruno Dumont; Cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines; Starring Juliette Binoche; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 15 October 2013.