Camille Claudel 1915 shows consequences of mental frailty
Starring Juliette Binoche. In French with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Friday, October 18, at the Vancity Theatre
Building on an earlier turn in François Truffaut’s 1975 film The Story of Adele H, Isabelle Adjani got a 1990 Oscar nomination for playing Camille Claudel, the artist sister of poet Paul Claudel. Today, Claudel is better know for her descent into madness than for what she made with her hands. As written in a catchily dismissive summation by then–New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty: “She lived, she loved, she sculpted, she went nuts!”
We’ll never know if her mental frailty predated her affair with French sculptor Auguste Rodin or was triggered by its violent end. But you have to wonder why more women didn’t go ballistic under the boot that came down if they dared to live by their creative talents.
Known for such brooding social-observation efforts as Humanité and Twentynine Palms, writer-director Bruno Dumont gives us the consequences of that descent. Instead of Adjani’s radiant rage, there is the spectral presence of Juliette Binoche, whose face wears the transparent skin of feeling itself. Her middle-aged Camille is not yet resigned to eternal confinement in a remote convent, where the other “patients” basically drool to communicate. In the wintry bleakness, we see she’s allowed some comforts, 1915-style. And an impending visit from Paul brightens her attitude toward the ancient doctor (Robert Leroy) running whatever program there is for women no one wants.
Dumont drew his dialogue from private correspondence between the Claudels, and one must admire his determination to dedramatize these lives and allow them ownership of their thoughts. Camille makes some potent, if borderline paranoid, observations while trying to talk her way out, but they are essentially monologues. Newcomer Jean-Luc Vincent, who plays Paul, has zero screen presence, unfortunately, and he’s stuck mouthing vaguely spiritual pleasantries against a slate-gray Avignon sky. (This is what the famous poet fobbed off on his big sister instead of helping her?) The new Camille Claudel offers arresting moments, but you must survive a catechism of chilly film devices to find them.