Writer/director Bruno Dumont gives a strongly feminist interpretation to the tragic story of the thwarted creativity of sculptor Camille Claudel. Even while leading a rebellious Bohemian life, she was dependent on men: Auguste Rodin, as his apprentice then lover; her father, who supported her years of retreat into what was seen as depressed, reclusive behavior; and after his death in 1913, under the control of her younger, religious brother, poet Paul Claudel. In this film, freely based on their letters and her medical records, middle-aged Camille (Juliette Binoche) is two years into the infantilizing incarceration he engineered, first in a Paris mental hospital and now at an isolated asylum in southeast France.
It was filmed unnervingly in an actual institution with real, non-verbal, groaning, brain-damaged patients and their nurses in traditional garb. (Dumont frequently works with nonprofessionals.) Camille’s daily routine of restlessly roaming the echoing asylum is so limited that she has had to fight for the independence to watch water boil in the kitchen, where she makes her own meals in peace and quiet, under what may be a pretense or a paranoid fear of poisoning. No wonder she reacts sharply at a condescending intern who tries to interfere.
When the head doctor (Robert Leroy) informs her that her brother is coming for a visit in three days, she anxiously girds herself to prove to both of them that she has regained enough equilibrium to earn release. Through a mostly silent performance—there’s very little dialogue—Binoche fiercely embodies the strains of an extraordinary woman working hard to act normal while surrounded by the abnormal and straining against the lack of freedom. At one point, an officious nurse criticizes her dirty hands and insists she bathe, and the clay under Camille’s nails cruelly reminds her of the sculpture she can no longer create, whether that’s due to her mental or physical situation is ambiguously left open. Binoche makes it seem just as likely that her outbursts against Rodin could reflect her suffering under genuine chauvinism and a fevered paranoia that has been aggravated by this sexist “treatment.”
For her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), though, her condition and captivity is the triumph of moral judgment. Just as she’s pacing the farthest boundaries of her prison like a caged cat, he is reluctantly leaving a similar-looking thick stoned monastery, also set in bucolic serenity. He, in effect, confesses to a priest (Emmanuel Kauffman), telling him how much he urgently longed for the calling to stay in this retreat, a message that he’s disappointed he didn’t receive from God. Despite the calm of this pastoral environment, he finds refuge in mystic Catholic poetry to condemn his sister’s immoral lifestyle, including her abortion, and positively relishes enforcing her continuing punishment. When he finally visits his sister, the intense close-ups are claustrophobic. Dumont has before explored the cruel ramifications of fervent religiosity on people’s lives, in Hadewijch (2009) and his most recent Outside Satan (2011). Here the shocking build-up leads to the historical facts in the closing scroll—that Paul kept her locked up until the end of her life, for almost 30 years.
Earlier this year Alice Winocour’s Augustine reexamined hysteria in France at this time with contemporary eyes. Camille Claudel 1915 also challenges the historical definition of mental illness, making a very powerful case that what was considered a woman’s insanity was a painful reaction to powerful men.