Interview: Bruno Dumont on his ‘Camille Claudel 1915’

French director Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), which premièred at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, sees Juliette Binoche take the lead as the famous French artist and lover of Auguste Rodin. The main thrust of Dumont’s latest sees Camille placed by her brother, the Catholic poet Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), in a remote mental institution where she remained for 30 years up until her death. Here, Dumont constructs a stripped-down formal universe that bends not inwards to his tragic heroine, but pushes her outwards towards transcendental hopelessness and an easy acceptance of her desperate situation. Earlier this year we caught up with Dumont to discuss Camille Claudel 1915, his first collaboration with Binoche and the complexities of mental illness.

David Mault: Were you surprised when Juliette Binoche contacted you to suggest working together on a film?
Bruno Dumont: It was Juliette (Binoche) that approached me and that defined the outcome and then I spent several months thinking about the subject and what would be acceptable and then I had the idea of having an artist play an artist. Camille Claudel is a mythical figure in France as a female artist because she was a genius with a tragic destiny so it is a natural figure for cinema.

DM: You’ve previously said that Binoche was foolhardy for wanting to work with you. Why was that, exactly?

BD: For that very reason is why she came to me. She wanted to her own boundaries and she wanted to change her art and try something new.

DM: In your opinion, was Camille Claudel actually mentally ill, or were her crimes against her time and its patriarchal leanings?

BD: She was really paranoid, there was no doubt about that and all the psychiatric records say she had psychological problems but you can’t imagine that this was the same person imprisoned. So the main question is why didn’t her brother let her out, because all her doctors were saying she can leave. There is a conversation in the film where the doctor says, “you can take her out”. So the mystery of all her life is why she wasn’t allowed to leave and nobody knows why. You can make ‘your’ judgement but all I can do is film that question. That is the mystery of Camille Claudel.
DM: How important is Paul Claudel and his relationship with his sister to your latest film?
BD: Paul Claudel is terribly important in Camille Claudel’s life, she was entirely abandoned by her family and the only one more or less that looked after her was Paul. In her letters she talks constantly about him, the only thing she has to look forward to in thirty years are his visits, and the only one who can get her out is her brother. So then you have an interesting paradox.
DM: Did you push to shoot with mentally disabled non-professionals rather than professional actors?
BD: It is terribly complicated filming mental illness and in a way it was the answer was to work with them. What is constant in all Camille’s letters is her complaining about these screaming grimacing women.

DM: Would you yourself classify religious obsession as a kind of mental illness?

BD: This time I portray it in an intellectual way in the mind of one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century: Paul Claudel, his alienation and how blind he is because of his religion. So what was strange for me was seeing Camille Claudel who was anticlerical and how she ended praying in the chapel every morning. I am very interested in these characters who are very religious and Catholic. Being Catholic you are on the borderline and the closest to ascetic and so this borderline is interesting because God is theatre. So to film a religious person: they are cinema. It is very interesting.
DM: Is it galling to be constantly asked for simplistic explanations of your work from the Anglo-Saxon film world?
BD: Yes, because I am filming the complexity of the human condition and that shadow line. But what is interesting is the mystery of Paul Claudel. I am not judging him, but if the audience are than that is their choice. My job is to question not answer. There are members of the audience who like Paul Claudel and understand him and people who leave their sisters in hospital and they are not all heroes. Paul Claudel was a poetic hero but he as a human being is a coward as we all are. I enjoy meeting spectators that live in that space that isn’t displayed.
DM: Finally, how do you think your filmmaking approach has changed since your 1997 debut La Vie de Jésus?
BD: I feel I have evolved. My style of directing has changed, I now put the camera in a better place. Originally I was a little bit experienced, I was trying to be on the side and let the actors play and not interfere too much but now I’m more confident to be in that space and constructing. Juliette was astonished how much the camera was dominating because usually it is her. She said it is normally her coming to the camera and not the other way around but that is what happened on Camille.

Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 is out on DVD now. To read our review of the film, simply follow this link.
D.W. Mault