Challenging and incredibly divisive, French director Bruno Dumont is renowned for his harrowing and burdensome portraits of modern life, that fall somewhere in-between realist drama and avant-garde otherness. His latest feature, Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), is a biopic about this titular sculptress and remains just as taxing, yet curiously lacks the elegance and provocation that usually makes his work so necessary. During the early years of the 20th century, Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche) was one of France’s most prominent sculptresses, amassing numerous patrons, dealers and a modest income from her work.
However, by 1905, Claudel showed signs of mental illness, destroying many of her statues and accusing her former lover, Auguste Rodin, of attempting to kill her. These signs of paranoia led to her being diagnosed with schizophrenia and her brother, Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), having her admitted to a rural psychiatric hospital. Dumont’s latest outing thus takes its influence from the letters sent between Claudel and her brother during this incarceration, acting as a window into her life within this cheerless institution.
Dumont’s work has always focused on the corporeality of human existence, often distilling his characters down to their bare metaphysical bones. Camille Claudel 1915 is no different, chronicling his protagonist’s routine of staunch petulance, fatiguing optimism and her endless vigil for her brother’s return. During this time, we observe Claudel’s forced integration with her fellow inmates, culminating in a mixture of affection, empathy and plain disgust – an emotion pushed upon the audience by Dumont’s controversial decision to use disabled actors and film them through a callous, unforgiving lens. Claudel’s mental condition is left purposely vague, allowing the audience to decipher her sanity for themselves.
However, despite this curious ambiguity, the film remains very much about the fragile psychology of an artist, the mental strains of creativity and the effects of removing the ability to generate art from someone who depends upon its catharsis. Dumont’s camera is rarely allowed to leave the confines of the psychiatric hospital, confining us in much the same way as our tragic heroine, with the French director’s strikingly minimalist and gritty approach creating a palpable sense of oppression and nervous anxiety. When we are permitted to leave, it’s only to join Claudel’s emotionless brother, whose tedious actions and droning voice detract from a film built around a truly captivating performance by Binoche.
This diversion from Dumont’s detached, yet incredibly compassionate and humble observation of a tortured artist, ultimately turns this hypnotically meditative tale into a gruelling and arduous slog. At once beautiful and yet also ugly, Camille Claudel 1915 is merely a minor example of Dumont’s true ability – and for this remains a remarkably underwhelming experience.
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