Berlin Review: Camille Claudel, 1915

Joseph Walsh

Bruno Dumont is a director who it's easy to get excited about. The mystical musings of Outside Satan (2011) wowed many critics, yet with Camille Claudel, 1915 he pushes his often-enjoyable inert style to the limit.

We open to the historical facts, dryly set up, as we learn Camille Claudel (Juliet Binoche) was a sculptress, who was not only the brother of lauded poet Paul Clausel, but is also known for having knocked knees with artist Rodin, until things went very sour. By the time we get to Claudel we find a glassy-eyed Binoche committed to an asylum in Avignon by her brother, being scrubbed down by nuns. Her days are spent wandering the cloisters avoiding the toothless cackling inmates like the plague, and boiling her own food due to a deluded fear that people want to poison her for being oh so talented.

In fairness, she was talented, yet the character Dumont has presented us with fails to generate a sufficient level of empathy to make this an interesting film to watch. This is partly due to his strange direction of Binoche who, try as she might, fails to make us really care for her situation. It’s tragic that this gifted woman was imprisoned, but because we only know about her life beforehand through a series of intertitles, we never see her work, we never know the details of why her relationship with Rodin caused such a drastic reaction – all we know is that she is depressed and hates being imprisoned. Binoche weeps and weeps, only breaking into a smile when she learns her brother (Jean-Luc Vincent) is coming to visit. In the meantime we see her sit in the garden staring at walls, boiling more food and switching between tolerance and tenderness toward her fellow inmates.

Binoche in one of the film's few dry-eyed scenes. 

Dumont, however – as we would expect – frames it all beautifully, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere in the institution. There are lingering shots of the high, craggy walls and whitewashed corridors where even the more comfy rooms look unwelcoming. Faces fill the screen in a vain effort to make us care more about Claudel (we rarely do), working occasionally, but mostly not. One thing in Dumont's favour is his great choice of casting non-professional actors with various mental disabilities as the other members of the asylum. They provide light relief with a performance of Don Juan that even makes Claudel smile until she starts bawling (again), presumably because it reminds her of now lost love. 

It rolls on and on (and on), switching to Paul for a brief, truly tiresome scene of him pondering on his religious vocation or sitting topless (as you do) writing his diary. The only apparent reason for these dull-as-ditchwater scenes is to delay his arrival, building to what can only loosely be called a climax when the siblings finally meet. We merely hover around interesting material to do with the fact that men have locked up a woman against her will, showing the misogyny of the age. Even the war, which was going on at the time, is only vaguely mentioned. It’s as if Dumont took every effort to remove any interesting material – so well done, Bruno, you succeeded in that much.

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