If French director Bruno Dumont’s last work, the enigmatic Hors Satan (2012), was a horror film devoid of genre convention then his latest, Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), is an enticing deconstruction of the period drama. The film, released on DVD in the UK this week after premièring at last year’s Berlinale, is at its best when it attempts to reconcile the director’s confrontational aesthetic with the early 20th century setting. On the whole, it’s not so much the taming of a provocateur as it is the recontextualisation of a distinctive body of work. It’s an unflinching portrait of an artist’s imprisonment, featuring an ever-watchable Juliette Binoche stripped of both her humanity and the very means to create.
The inimitable Binoche stars as the titular artist, banished by her family to a remote asylum in the South of France. She is at her wits’ end, surrounded by women who are severely impaired, and it’s clear she doesn’t belong there. However, the manifestation of her legitimate frustration is becoming akin to a form of madness in itself. Her life is told in anecdotal snippets and the film builds up to the arrival of her writer brother Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), a dour, devout Christian. Camille is hopeful, believing Paul will see the futility of her situation and release her from her personal hell. There is inordinate pleasure in seeing an actress as big as Binoche returning to more daring material, especially after her Godzilla cameo. As Camille she’s an absolute livewire; at once vulnerable, exposed and utterly magnetic.
It’s a very different portrayal to that of Isabelle Adjani in Bruno Nuytten’s more conventional 1988 biopic Camille Claudel. Binoche brings out the inherent tragedy in Camille’s inability to express herself artistically. The fire once reserved for art is now diverted to rage, depression and blame; she is a woman imprisoned in every sense. Much is made in film circles of Dumont’s purported austerity. But it’s a peculiar form of austerity; one which allows for agitation and confrontation within the bounds of its starkness. Yes, there are Dreyer-like moments of cold, harsh reflection, but there are also moments where the director forces the hopelessness of Camille’s situation on audiences.
Claudel’s fellow patients are helpless in a different way; they are genuinely unwell, shouting and wailing uncontrollably. They are shot in full frames, imposed on the audience and Camille. It’s a twisted subversion of cinema as the empathy machine; we should be compassionate, but the technique transforms the situation into a confrontation. It’s undoubtedly problematic, but it has an undeniable, ruthless efficiency. Camille Claudel 1915’s final act, with its focus on Paul, is a drag on the picture, feeling artificial and overly theatrical. Binoche is astonishing; Dumont should have loathed to abandon her for Vincent.
This review was originally published on 14 October 2013 as part of our extensive BFI London Film Festival coverage.
Craig Williams | @CraigFilm