The remarkable life of the French sculptor and artist Camille Claudel has spawned numerous movies, plays, musicals — even a ballet. But in his film, writer-director Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms, Humanity) zeroes in on three days in Claudel’s life in 1915, drawn from her personal letters and diaries, after she had been shipped off to an asylum by her brother Paul and was awaiting his visit to argue for her release.
As played by Juliette Binoche in a stark, naturalistic performance, Claudel was certainly idiosyncratic and rife with neuroses (she insisted on preparing all her own meals for fear of being poisoned by her former lover, Auguste Rodin). But she clearly did not belong in the mental institution in which she was imprisoned, surrounded by patients suffering from severe afflictions and diseases far more crippling than her own (instead of using actors, as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dumont cast mentally disabled people in the film, adding a level of discomfiting realism).
Using his usual slow-burn approach, Dumont paces Camille Claudel 1915 deliberately, almost without incident, aside from watching Binoche boil eggs and peel potatoes and hold a piece of mud in her hand as if it were sculpting clay. He doesn’t just want to show you what Claudel went through: He wants to make you feel it alongside her, which is not always a pleasant experience.
But the movie loses focus with the arrival of Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), a devoutly faithful man who believes his sister has been possessed. As he’s often done in his previous films, Dumont turns Camille Claudel 1915 into an exploration of religious righteousness and philosophy, only it’s done mostly through dialogue and speechifying instead of dramatization. By the time Camille and her brother have their much-anticipated face-to-face, Camille Claudel 1915 has become a bit of an endurance test. But Binoche’s bare, unsparing portrayal of a desperate woman slowly going mad makes the journey worthwhile.
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent, Emmanuel Kauffman, Robert Leroy, Marion Keller.
Writer-director: Bruno Dumont.
Producers: Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Bréhat, Véronique Cayla.
A Kino-Lorber release. Running time: 95 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Nudity, strong adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 8 in Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.