“Madhouses are houses made on purpose to cause suffering… I cannot stand any longer the screams of these creatures,” writes Camille Claudel to her brother Paul.
The life of an artist is not always an easy one. Genius and madness go hand-in-hand more often than we think. Sometimes the clash of artists can lead to great works, while other times it results in ruined lives. One such artist is Camille Claudel, a French sculptor who was a former protégé and mistress of Auguste Rodin (the famous sculptor who created The Thinker and the Gates of Hell, which I happened to see last year on display at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia). Camille’s mental state seemed to have deteriorated after the end of their relationship; she believed that Rodin was trying to ruin her life by having people break into her studio to steal her work. It got to the point where her younger brother Paul, the famous Christian poet, had her sent away to a church-run mental hospital in Avignon, France.
The story of Camille Claudel was previously brought to the big screen by Bruno Nuytten with 1988’s Camille Claudel, featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Isabelle Adjani as the title character and Gerard Depardieu as Auguste Rodin. 25 years later, Bruno Dumont brings us Camille Claudel 1915, which takes place some time after the events of Nuytten’s film. Dumont’s film (which was based on Camille’s medical records as well as her letters to Paul) takes place over the course of three days in the year 1915. Camille has been suffering during her stay at the asylum. She considers herself sane especially since she is surrounded by “poor creatures” who cannot properly communicate and are much more damaged than she is. One day she is informed that her brother Paul is coming to visit her, and she hopes that he’ll listen to her pleas to get her released.
Dumont’s film is anchored by an extraordinary performance by Juliette Binoche (now my fourth favorite performance from a lead actress this year; the other three being Cate Blanchett from Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Barbara Sukowa from Margarette Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt, and Sandra Bullock from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity). Binoche creates a Camille who’s a tortured, sympathetic artist with a somewhat questionable mental state. She longs to get out of what she considers a prison, and we feel her anguish every step of the way. Dumont enhances this feeling by casting real mental patients and their caretakers, further alienating Binoche and allowing her to tap into what Camille’s mindset might’ve really been like. Binoche’s performance is one that is emotionally naked as well as physically (seen briefly at the beginning of the film).
Riton Dupire-Clement’s production design is well-done (the primary location being the mental hospital). The cinematography by Guillaume Deffontaines is wonderful; there’s nothing stagey or showy about it and the all-natural light is used to great effect. The large absence of music also helps to create a somewhat eerie atmosphere. All in all, Dumont deserves credit for bringing a unique vision to this real life-based story, along with a powerhouse performance from Juliette Binoche.