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Review: Juliette Binoche in the Heartbreaking 'Camille Claudel 1915'

by Caryn James
October 16, 2013 9:01 AM
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Camille Claudel

There is not a glimpse of Camille Claudel's graceful, eloquent sculptures in Camille Claudel 1915. But  in an especially wrenching scene, as Claudel walks on the grounds of the asylum for mental patients where she will needlessly stay for decades, she picks up a piece of mud, begins to sculpt it in one hand like clay, then throws it to the ground as if it were an unbearable memory of her former life.  Once the muse, student and lover of Rodin,  the Claudel we see in 1915  -- so quietly and affectingly brought to life by Juliette Binoche -- is not some stereotypical artist lost in a mad hallucination, but a tragic woman whose family callously keeps her entrapped long after she needs the asylum's protection.

Rigorous and disturbing -- sometimes in unintentional ways -- Bruno Dumont's film focuses on Claudel's daily routine during a few days when she is anticipating a rare visit from her brother, the poet Paul Claudel. Based on the letters of Paul and Camille, and using actual patients from a psychiatric hospital, this low-key film achieves an unsettling authenticity.

We first see Claudel being dragged unwillingly into a bath in the asylum, an isolated place in the South of France, resembling a monastery.  She boils eggs for her dinner because she fears the kitchen staff is trying to poison her, and tells her doctor that followers of Rodin, whom she hasn't seen in years, have stolen work from her studio. Yet these bursts of paranoia puncture a tortured lucidity. She clearly does not belong in the company of the other patients, women who growl instead of speak and bang their spoons on a table at dinnertime.

Although the presence of these real-life patients adds a layer of reality, as Dumont intended, the film can't escape the tinge of exploitation. The patients were even told to call Binoche "Camille"  to avoid any accidental slips on camera. How much did they really understand? Does Alexandra Lucas (photo above), as a woman who wants to be Claudel's friend, understand that when "Camille" snaps at her angrily and pushes her away, Juliette Binoche was just acting?  

But there is nothing to fault in Binoche's delicate, heartbreaking performance as a woman still caught between hope and hopelessness. Dumont's visual style is subdued, his camera calm and deliberate in frequent close-ups of Binoche's face. Speaking to the camera, she becomes a haunting presence.

Late in the film, her brother (Jean-Luc Vincent) appears, which explains some of the awful family dynamics. By then Paul is so caught up in religion that he stops his car by the side of the road to pray. Writing a letter that judges Camille harshly for having had an abortion,  he embodies self-satisfied, proud superiority masquerading as humility before God.

It helps to know something of Camille Claudel's past and work before watching the film. Even when she lived in Rodin's shadow, she made her way as an artist with a style of her own. That knowledge makes it even sadder to witness the sadness, isolation and entrapment she endured for so long after. 

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