Madness and Civilization

Bruno Dumont, Camille Claudel 1915, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes. Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche).

A SUPERFICIALLY AUSTERE biopic that nevertheless indulges in garishness, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 marks the first time that the writer-director, who often casts nonprofessionals in his films, has collaborated with a major star: Juliette Binoche. In contrast with Camille Claudel (1988), the Isabelle Adjani passion project in which she plays the tragic sculptor and Rodin muse and mistress, Camille Claudel 1915 forgoes epic sweep and bloat. Picking up where the earlier film left off, Dumont’s movie traces, during the year that the artist turned fifty-one, just three days of her grim life at the Montdevergues mental asylum near Avignon, where she had been committed by her family. (In a letter to a friend, Claudel refers to the “day I was taken via window.”)

Dumont’s film opens promisingly: Binoche wordlessly yet potently conveys her abject state, sitting vigilantly by a pot in which an egg and potato are being boiled; as a nurse explains to a physician, Claudel has been granted dispensation to prepare her own spartan repasts owing to her fear of being poisoned. But our hope that Camille Claudel 1915 will be a subtle, sober biopic quickly dissipates when it becomes clear that the writer-director has populated his docudrama with actual asylum patients, women with significant physical and mental deficiencies who are deployed not as background extras, but as “characters” with important minor roles.

The purpose of this act of bad faith, apparently, is to highlight Claudel’s comparative lucidity and intelligence, to emphasize the fact that her own family is keeping her incarcerated against her will. This specious authenticity, however, succeeds only in making the seams of the film visible. Like Charcot documenting his patients at the Salpêtrière, Dumont lingers long on these mentally ill women, particularly on the inmate played by Alexandra Lucas, whose horribly malformed teeth seem to have a special appeal for the director.

Rather than underscore Claudel’s helplessness and anguish, Dumont’s casting of real sufferers brings out his lead’s worst tics. In her scenes with other Montdevergues patients, Binoche, whose maximalist acting style makes Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) nearly unendurable, cannot resist emoting “big”—whether in a gesture as seemingly small as a nostril flair or a too-long glower, or an action as outsize as gleefully shouting Mlle Lucas’s garbled cry of “Hallelujah.” The internationally feted performer seems to be operating on the fear that she will be upstaged by her novice costars.

Adding to the discordance is the abrupt shift, at roughly the film’s midpoint, to Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), Camille’s younger brother and a renowned—and highly devout—poet. Dumont, once lauded as the artistic heir of Robert Bresson, has frequently been drawn to investigations of the spiritual (successfully in 2009’s Hadewijch, disastrously in 2011’s Outside Satan); here, Paul serves as a stock figure of piousness and hypocrisy. “We expect saintliness of you,” a priest says to Claudel frère after the latter’s long disquisition on Rimbaud’s effect on his deepening conviction—a telegraphed irony, considering Paul’s coldness and condescension during his visit with his sister a few scenes later. “Everything is a parable, Camille,” Paul patronizingly sniffs as his sibling grows more agitated. If there is an instructive lesson to be found in Dumont’s film, it may be that Adjani’s version of the sculptor’s life, despite its prestige-picture trappings, is the more courageous and profound one.

Camille Claudel 1915 plays at Film Forum in New York October 16–29.