The Master of Bronze Who Spent Her Life Behind Bars: Camille Claudel 1915

10/16/2013 4:00 AM |

Camille Claudel 1915
Directed by Bruno Dumont

The most haunting features of French sculptor Camille Claudel’s works are always the eyes, which uncannily convey a rich inner life. Juliette Binoche achieves a similar effect here in her portrayal of the artist during the second year of a three-decade institutionalization that would last until her death. In long, silent takes and a few monologues inspired by Claudel’s correspondence with her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent)—who kept her institutionalized but remained virtually her only contact with the outside world—Binoche makes plain the maddening dread of wasted talent, stolen freedom and lost years.

Bruno Dumont’s pared-down direction and screenplay, and Guillaume Deffontaines’s spartan cinematography, amplify Binoche’s intensity, making this more of a psychological portrait than a period biopic. In this respect it couldn’t be more different from Camille Claudel, 1988’s Isabelle Adjani-Gerard Depardieu melodrama, which focused on younger Claudel’s relationship with her mentor and lover, Auguste Rodin. In fact, if not for the title and occasional allusions to WWI, you could easily forget when Camille Claudel 1915 is set. The nun-staffed institution in rural France looks practically medieval, but its deeply engrained sexism and condescension are creepily modern. The austere conditions and supporting cast of weirdly endearing detainees evoke an era before the Industrial Revolution, but then Paul turns up in a motorcar. This disorienting jumble, suggesting disparate places and times, contributes to the film’s purgatorial mood.

In this raw, sparse setting, with its windswept landscape populated by patients whose grimacing faces share the same depth as Claudel’s best portrait busts, Binoche is superb. Quiet and calculating one minute, unhinged and sobbing the next, she expresses brilliantly the maddening frustration of a falsely incarcerated genius. Seeking some modicum of control over her predicament, and plagued by paranoid fears and conspiracy theories, Claudel is permitted to prepare her own meals. But fleeting bursts of creativity, as when she begins drawing in the margins of a letter or manipulates a handful of clay found on a stroll, only serve to extenuate her growing desperation and feelings of powerlessness.

Meanwhile, Dumont refrains from casting Paul as an outright villain or elucidating his motivation for locking up his sister, though his culpability is never in doubt. In two monologue-driven scenes that are the film’s weakest, Vincent plays Paul as alternately aloof and conniving, feigning piety and concern but clearly eager to keep his sister imprisoned. Otherwise, Camille Claudel 1915 foregoes family drama to focus on and conjure all-too-effectively the crazy-making daily slog of being the only sane person in a mental institution. Knowing that Claudel would die in that same facility 28 years later makes Binoche’s performance, with its sporadic flashes of hope and optimism for a return to normalcy, all the more powerful and gut-wrenching.

Opens October 16

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