Sculpture is the art of turning lifeless stone into something that looks alive, flesh, living bodies and movement. Jacques Doillon’s Rodin, in competition at Cannes, does precisely the opposite, turning living beings – passionate artists, no less – into lumps of lifeless clay.
Vincent Lindon, who deservedly won the Best Actor award here with The Measure of a Man two years ago, is now cast here as the eponymous sculptor. We meet him in 1880, aged 40 and at the height of his fame, as he prepares his work for the gates of hell, inspired by Dante. His student and mistress Camille Claudel (Izia Higelin) is an inspiration, but is already seeking her independence. A sexy force of nature that contrasts with the bovine docility of Rodin, who spends much of the film blinking at her like someone who has just been hit on the head by a mallet.
As with the far better Mr. Turner, much attention is paid to the actual work. And yet despite the fact we see Rodin sculpting frequently, it is often from the wrong direction. Much furrowed brows and standing back. There’s none of the spitting and huffing and puffing that made Timothy Spall such a compelling presence in Mike Leigh’s film. The film is divided into a series of chapters defined by different commissions. A bust of Victor Hugo leads on to a busty of Balzac. Many famous contemporary artists and writers leads to some almost hilarious dialogue of the “Ah Cezanne good to see you, Zola make room on the sofa”. It feels like a Monty Python sketch with all of the funny surgically removed.
Meanwhile, Rodin ineptly juggles an older lover, a domestic wifely figure, at and the increasingly tempestuous Claudel. “As artists we are masterpieces, as people we are pathetic,” she says in one of many examples tin-eared dialogue. There’s talk of the stony solitude of cathedrals, learning from form from watching clouds and, before anyone can stop him, Rodin actually hugs a tree. Free of Claudel at last, Rodin goes sex-mad, seducing models left, right and centre. There’s even a menage-a-trois which feels like a porn-parody version of the same film – not for its explicitness so much as the quality of the dialogue.
Rodin has been treated before in the past and one can’t help but feel that the origin of the film as a series of commissioned documentaries might have something to do with its dramatic limpness. However, the sidelining of Claudel as an impossible woman turns the clock back on the brilliant reassessment of her role in Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 Camille Claudel starring Isabelle Adjani.