Review: Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)

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Cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent, Emmanuel Kauffman
Director: Bruno Dumont
Country: France
Genre: Biography | Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Camille Claudel 1915 is now open in limited release

It’s fitting that the title card of Camille Claudel 1915 should render its date in subtext, as though suggesting this woman somehow dwarfs this time. As played by Juliette Binoche, there’s little she doesn’t: though certainly never a showy performance, Binoche’s work here is titanic, a staggering display of emotional enormity so overpowering it possesses the film, even in scenes without her. But the date also serves, of course, as an effective disclaimer of sorts: this is not the Bruno Nuytten romantic epic that steered Isabelle Adjani to an Oscar nomination in 1989; no, this is a Claudel long-past those days, and a film in the hands of a director far more restrained and reserved in his aesthetic approach.

Binoche’s work here is titanic, a staggering display of emotional enormity so overpowering it possesses the film, even in scenes without her.

camille_claudel_1915_2013_3An effective companion piece to Outside Satan, also given theatrical release this year, Camille Claudel 1915 continues Dumont’s thematic obsession with religion; he has here the same tableaux vivants, his characters bowed in awe before the grandiosity of the landscape. But where the elusive aura of that earlier film’s main character never allowed us an understanding of what or whom he bowed to, the new movie’s subjects’ worship is all the more clearly Christian. Indeed, Dumont’s framing of Binoche’s oft-agonised face is eerily akin to Dreyer’s of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, the equally skeletal visages those of women subdued by the institutions of their supposed salvation. And as comparably kind as the nuns who care for Claudel and her fellow patients here may be, their dress nevertheless assumes the foreboding flavour of a prison guard uniform.

The chilling gauntness and ghostly pallor Binoche sports speaks every bit as much as she herself does not: given little dialogue, the bulk only in her final moments, she is entrusted with expressing the emptiness of this woman’s existence largely through her emptied eyes alone. As they track across a carpet, tracing the path of the sun’s rays as though seeing them for the first time, they make all too appreciable the two years’ worth of days thus far spent tucked away from the world. There’s a harrowing dichotomy to this performance: at times seeming only bored, at others deeply disturbed, Binoche makes of Claudel a figure as impenetrable as that at the centre of Outside Satan, as impossible to ever truly understand.

But amidst his plentiful religious allusions, he is at heart a humanist in the mold of Bresson, a comparison aptly earned here as ever in his casting of non-professional actors.

camille_claudel_1915_2013_4Dumont’s direction offers few clues, and it would be easy to accuse his aloof eye of dispassion. But amidst his plentiful religious allusions, he is at heart a humanist in the mold of Bresson, a comparison aptly earned here as ever in his casting of non-professional actors. It seems almost a prerequisite to disclaim the potential exploitation in casting the mentally disabled, yet in a sense exploitative is precisely what it is, albeit more of reality than of these people. For Dumont, above all, is a realist: his gaze, so easy to decry as cold and devoid of compassion, is all the more compassionate for its willingness not to deny the tougher truths of life. In a disturbing scene noted by many for its humour, he trains the camera almost entirely on Binoche’s face as she watches a disastrous effort to mount a play with the patients, cutting only very briefly to the onstage action. The tearful tremors that slowly overwhelm their wide-eyed amusement are as effective a summation of the story as the film has to offer.

It’s not untoward to accuse Dumont’s film of slightly losing its way when it leaves Camille to briefly join her brother Paul as he journeys to visit her. Such is the strength of Binoche’s performance that her presence lingers even over those few scenes that exclude her. The thematic stage-setting that short sequence comprises, though, is key to the climax of their meeting, and the movie’s compelling closure precisely where it opened. Among the film’s final shots is a zoom to close-up on Binoche so slow it packs all the surprise of a jump cut when we realise just how long we’ve been lost in her eyes and the simple, soulful sadness that fills them. As the film concludes on a screen spreading captions explaining her fate across her face, cast in a rare smile, we realise that it’s had precisely the same effect itself.

[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. Camille Claudel 1915 is all the more compassionate for its willingness not to deny the tougher truths of life.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.