Acting Out
by Michael Koresky

Camille Claudel 1915
Dir. Bruno Dumont, France, Kino Lorber

If nothing else, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 proves that a movie star really is a completely different animal than the rest of us schlubs. Juliette Binoche barely has to curl a lip to instantly signal grandiosity—by this point, she instinctively knows how to command and play to the camera. Viewers aware of Dumont’s career will also feel Binoche’s presence acutely: the French director doesn’t regularly use actors in his scrupulously discomfiting films, let alone Oscar-winning icons. Binoche not only gets to play a historical martyr—the sculptor of the title, spoken of most frequently for being Auguste Rodin’s spurned mistress and for her subsequent institutionalization at the behest of her family—she also is enlisted to work against a cast of real mentally challenged inmates from an asylum, their unrefined unaffectedness putting her status as an actor into even sharper relief. This is the first time Dumont has played with this sort of iconicity, moving him further away than ever from the stripped-away Bressonian model of performance, and it gives a film that might have been hopelessly austere a shocking burst of energy.

All implosive emoting, Binoche is unavoidably self-conscious onscreen; it’s a role that by design can’t allow her to disappear into character. Following Camille over the course of a few days at the Montdevergues Asylum near Avignon, while she waits for her long-unseen brother to visit, Dumont often has Binoche do little more than fill Camille’s dead time: sitting, strolling, staring at trees, minimally interacting with the other patients, obsessing over the food she suspects has been poisoned, fondling hunks of shit found on the lawn as though it were the molding clay she desperately desires. At these moments, Binoche can’t help but be Binoche, which both obscures the specifics and enriches the essential humanity of the fascinating person ostensibly at the center of this portrait. Even in her two big monologues (one to her stoic doctor, the other to her brother late in the film) seem more like well executed exercises than expository passages about Camille’s past. While the film’s intense focus on three imagined days in a historical figure’s existence—which fairly stands in for the nearly thirty final years of her life she would be confined to the institution—sometimes makes the film feel like a spiritual cousin to Gus Van Sant’s Kurt Cobain variation Last Days, Dumont seems to be less after harrowing revelations about his subject than an experiment in audience identification.

After all, according to interviews, Camille Claudel 1915 came about after Binoche wrote to the director an admiring letter informing him that she wished to collaborate; initially Dumont only knew he wanted to make a film about “a woman in solitude.” He was at the time reading about the sculptor, and her disturbing story fit the bill. Dumont’s tightly focused narrative is based on letters she wrote while imprisoned at the asylum—in other words, it’s a visualization of her emotions as she experienced them rather than a biographical approximation of her life. For a more pedestrian treatment of the events of the troubled artist’s life, Bruno Nuytten’s 1989 Camille Claudel, starring a ferocious Isabelle Adjani, is readily available. In fact, that epic-scaled film serves as an apt prologue for Dumont’s less traditional, miniature take, which has already settled into placid routine when it begins. Where the classical form of Nuytten’s film had us watch Claudel from a distance and surmise her incremental downfall with inexorable dread, Dumont’s dramatization of her is all about empathy. Watching Binoche’s every flicker of confusion, anger, remorse, and hope, we are made privy to a succession of emotions that transcend time and place. This is more a film about acting—both the historical necessity of women to constantly play roles for audiences real and perceived, and about our experience of watching a major contemporary screen actor inhabit a character forced to play those roles—than about linear historical events. That the film is interested in performance rather than biography is crystallized in a sequence in which Binoche is a spectator of a rehearsal for Don Juan, performed by her fellow patients: the seasoned actor surveying and judging the work of nonactors who can hardly remember their lines. It’s the fabricated versus the real, although in a clear and common irony only the former can truly approximate the latter dramatically.

Considering Dumont’s propensity for unalloyed austerity, Camille Claudel 1915, with its spareness of plot and forbidding monastery setting, would seem to offer a pure shot of drab, stationary cinema, but there’s a surprising mobility to the camerawork here as we follow Camille around the environs. There’s also an almost heavenly richness to the images that contrasts nicely with the protagonist’s grim plight. Nestled in the mountains outside Avignon, Montdevergues is filmed by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines to look in elegant long shots like a storybook castle—one from which we hope our heroine might be rescued.

Of course, if we know the real story, we know her brother’s imminent visit will not provide the escape—physical or spiritual—that Camille desires and deserves. The introduction of Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), Camille’s brother, a poet, diplomat, and religious zealot, throws the narrative for a loop. Whereas the film had heretofore wedded us intensely, uncomfortably, to Camille, we are suddenly unmoored from her, following instead an unknowable, distant man. His single-minded, cold piety reads as alien especially compared to the transparent emotional purity of his sister. We see him kneeling and praying from a mountainside rode with Montdevergues in the distance, and later in a discreetly depicted but potent moment of self-mutilation in the name of God. Naturally, Dumont, that conjurer of medieval menace, brings it back to Christian dread, though rather than trade in his usual ambivalence toward religion, he seems to stake firm territory on the subject here, depicting Camille as the victim of persecution.

By the time brother and sister meet, Dumont has effectively established them as irreconcilable beings: sanctimonious posturing under the guise of devoutness versus direct, unadulterated feeling. Paul claims to believe that “God is everywhere,” and that every decision is an extension of his grace: a perceived truth that only relieves him of moral responsibility. But hers—the artist’s—is the authentic spirituality. Even against the doctor’s suggestion, Paul will not agree to release Camille, destined to remain isolated and artistically stifled until her death. It would be an obscene fate for Binoche, as well.