Franco-Belgian filmmaker Bruno Dumont makes an impressive return to cinema with Camille Claudel 1915.
Camille Claudel 1915 marks a departure of sorts for Dumont. It’s a star vehicle, a first for the filmmaker, with Juliette Binoche collaborating with a director best known for his work with non-professional performers. As one might expect though, Dumont pushes the notion of the star vehicle to it’s very limits, subverting the grand French tradition of the star player and turning it on its head. Binoche is placed within a cinematic landscape far removed from what one might ordinarily associate her with. Glamour is removed, both literally and figuratively within the text of the film too, with the person of Camille Claudel herself ultimately picked up and removed from the high society of her time, an artist forced in to exile at the behest of a brother whose intent was unclear. The portrayal of Paul Claudel in Dumont’s film appears to be rather true to fact, which implies a cold, uncaring man, happy to pass off his sisters mental illness in return for the occasional visit once every couple of years.
While the moral ‘crime’ of Camille Claudel’s incarceration makes for a stunningly bleak appraisal whichever way one looks at it in reality, as subject matter for a Bruno Dumont picture thematically it lines up well enough for the uninitiated to disassociate the work from being a portrayal of factual events. The staple Dumont elements are present and correct; a psychological disparateness rendered physical, man against the backdrop of nature, the personal rendered allegorical and sweeping. The rural mental institution, run by a superfluity of nuns is a harsh and unforgiving space to spend time in, although one might argue that it’s positively pedestrian compared to some areas of Dumont’s oeuvre, with the presence of a recognisable star in Binoche elevating the work to a more traditionally cinematic place than some his other works.
While Binoche brings with her a subtextual element of the star persona one wouldn’t ordinarily associate with Dumont, it’s reassuring to see the rest of his world populated with the kind of figures that one most certainly would. Some have accused Dumont of exploitation in his casting of the disabled in several key roles, but one might struggle more greatly with the idea of the opposite being the action. There’s a constant feeling in the peripheral that Claudel’s space is constantly shifting away from her, in turn reflecting her own condition. Devoid of temporal note in any shape, it isn’t until a third act appearance of a car that one might begin to place the film against any backdrop of a specific time. This in itself is endemic of Dumont’s work, with any sense of the contemporary an aside, regardless of how explicit such detail is from a theoretical perspective (we know from the title that Camille Claudel 1915 is set in 1915, in the same way that one sees Flandres as a war film, albeit a war film stationed around a war without identity).
Overt, primitive handcuffs incarcerate the woman, bringing to mind the harshest imagery of Dreyer, while the core themes of that filmmaker’s greatest work, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc come to mind when one reflects upon the arch thesis of Camille Claudel 1915, which is this notion of art vs. faith (though on the whole one might look to the same director’s Gertrud or Francois Truffaut’s The Story Of Adele H. for the straightest companion to Dumont’s film). It is in the removal of her artistic capability that Claudel suffers the most, with Dumont drawing allusions between what faith means to Paul Claudel, a man who quite literally preaches on the hill side, and what art means to his sibling. The two, art and faith, are closer bedfellows than enemies, but have never seemed more further apart than in the closing minutes of Camille Claudel 1915. One might hypothesise that the French tradition of incarceration cinema is explicitly connected to the fate of ‘The Maid of Orléans’, with any number of protagonist’s fate echoing that of Jeanne d’Arc. As the end title card of Camille Claudel 1915 reveals the eventual fate of the eponymous figure one can’t help but turn towards the hypocrisy of the Christian man serving as judge, jury and executioner over a sister unfairly deemed heretic.