In fewer than two hours, French writer/director Bruno Dumont’s latest film recreates the institutionalization of sculptor Camille Claudel—Auguste Rodin’s pupil and mistress, grippingly portrayed by Juliette Binoche—with an unparalleled journey of voyeuristic solitude.
“Camille Claudel 1915,” which premiered on Tuesday, provides an inside look at a mental institution at the turn of the century, using actual patients and nurses to create a realistic effect. Claudel was known both for her relationship with her brother, the mystic poet Paul Claudel, and with Rodin. Dumont constructed the screenplay using Claudel’s diary, correspondence between Paul and Camille, and medical records.
Dumont’s choice of using real-life patients is not without controversy. On one hand, the use of real patients for an Academy Award-winning actress to interact with on-screen works extremely well. On the other hand, this tactic challenges the genre of film, the quality of the patient’s care, and the possible invasion of their privacy.
Controversial casting aside, the cinematography is excellent. Dumont inundates the viewers with strongly emphasized images and sound, creating a sensory overload. In one scene, sun shines through the windowpanes of Claudel’s room, which draws shadowy lines like bars on Binoche’s face to depict the pent-up emotion of feeling caged. The ironic twist is that the scene occurs in a beautifully decorated sitting room with lace curtains floating in the breeze. In another scene, a group of institutionalized women climb up a hill—presumably for daily exercise or inspiration—and the attraction of the walk is the sound of the elements they are up against: the wind in their faces and the stones under their boots.
The film blurs the lines between patient and inmate, and devotion and madness. In a memorable monologue, Camille’s brother Paul speaks of his devotion to Christianity in a tone that resembles Camille’s devotion to her work, her art, and her own space—and yet, he is deemed sane. It seems the real madness at the turn of the century was the desire to be a female artist who wanted to live and work alone.
While Paul Claudel proclaims, “There is no worse trade than art”—with “Camille Claudel 1915,” art provides a vehicle to discuss sensitive, even controversial, issues.
“Camille Claudel 1915” will play at Film Forum until Oct. 29.