Like most of director Bruno Dumont’s films, “Camille Claudel 1915” has proven divisive (you can read our take here), but one thing that critics on both sides of the fence are in unanimous agreement about is the quality of the central performance from Juliette Binoche. Economically contained and internalised, even when her Claudel is displaying some rare histrionics, Binoche invests the role with oceanic depths and undercurrents of conflicting emotion in a turn that in some ways can almost be seen as the stripped-away template for the kind of melancholic, tragic, tortured heroine with which she has made her name.
During an enjoyable and intimate (no seriously -- we were alone in a bedroom) interview with Binoche at the Berlin International Film Festival last week, we got to talk about her approach to this role, her sometimes friction-y relationships with the various auteur directors she has worked with (often more than once), and her aforementioned tragic air, which was borne out by the seriousness with which she answered our questions, and then regularly belied by frequent peals of totally infectious and uninhibited laughter, usually directed at herself.
I would say "abnegation." [Claudel had] been put on the outside of society, and the outside of her family, and on the outside of herself, of her possible creativity. They wanted her to be creative but she refused it, it would have meant accepting her situation which she never accepted to the end of her life. But it puts her in a situation where she’s not herself… And when you push so much into a corner of yourself you have to find what’s inside in order to survive. I think her spiritual life probably opened up at that time.
Her brother wrote that he went to see her two weeks before she died and he saw the happiest expression on her face as if she had reached some sort of bliss before going. So you think, "Wow! Life has taken everything away from her and she has been to the nothingness of her being, the poorest, the coldest, the most unjust thing that ever happened and she was able to find a way of surviving." And that is fascinating.
Actually I didn’t even question the role, I just knew I wanted to work with Dumont. Because to me he is the most talented director in France. And I have nostalgia for Tarkovsky and Dreyer and because I cannot shoot with them, I’m gonna "invent" a Dreyer relationship! [And there is] that melancholia I have, and Dumont is closest, in a way, to that world.
And so when he had the idea of 'Camille Claudel' I was thrilled because I had already plugged in some sort of relationship with her -- I was taken by her passion and also touched by what she had to go through… Of course dealing with insanity it was a big question to me because as a teenager I experienced going to psychiatric hospitals because one member of my family had been through these places. So I kind of knew the surroundings, but at the same time playing it was a different story, and I was scared. So that’s why I said... "I want to have a coach because this is a scary area and if I have to go there, I want to come back."
[Dumont] didn’t take it nicely at first, he said “You don’t trust me to direct, I know how to direct” and I said “It’s not about that. You have to trust me also as an actor, and if you don’t want to give me the script, I have to trust you... but it’s half/half -- it can’t just be one way.”
Dumont refused to give you the script in advance?
He said, “You don’t read the script.” But then I was trying to extract from him some information about the story. And we had kind of regular lunches and dinners, and I said give me at least -- I know it’s three days of her life -- but what’s happening day one, day two. And he started telling me, and I was so happy we were in a restaurant that had paper napkins so I could write down everything he was saying as quickly as possible “Slow down, slow down!”