Thursday, December 19, 2013

Camille Claudel, 1915

In a world in which progress toward equality often comes only when enough people witness an injustice that nobody ought to be made to bear, Bruno Dumont's austere and demanding "Camille Claudel, 1915" is in its own way a proto-feminist rallying cry.

"Cry" is the key word; as the French sculptor, involuntarily committed by her family to an institution outside Avignon, Juliette Binoche bawls her eyes out to such an extent that indentations appear to form under each eye from the stream of tears. For this gifted actress, who often appears breezy and effortless onscreen, this is as challenging and nub-raw a performance as she's ever been asked to give, and she responds with a profoundly empathetic and intuitively connected portrayal that's perhaps the most unforgettable of her career.

Claudel is best known for her volatile relationship with Auguste Rodin. She had been a student of the sculptor Alfred Boucher, but when Boucher moved to Florence, he asked Rodin to take over instruction of his pupils. Away from the teaching atelier, Claudel became Rodin's model and muse, and they began a torrid four-year romance. Seventeen years later, she began to exhibit paranoid schizophrenia, destroying many of her works and living in seclusion in her workshop. In 1913, her mother and brother admitted her to the psychiatric hospital of Ville-√Čvrard; due to the war, she and several other patients were relocated twice, eventually landing at Montdevergues Asylum at Montfavet.

By the time Dumont picks up, Camille's already been inside for two years. She's clearly different from the lunatics: fully functional, intelligent, able to control her emotions. And she is allowed certain privileges: to cook her own meals (she's afraid of being poisoned), to come and go largely as she pleases. Taking supper or sitting outside in contemplation, she often sets herself apart from the others, whom she looks upon with a combination of sympathy and revulsion, but just as often helps them back and forth to their rooms or watches them rehearse for a highly condensed production of "Don Juan." Throughout, Binoche's face registers the question: Why have I been pent up with these people?

Upon hearing that her brother, Paul, will be paying a visit on the week-end, Camille is elated; he will see that she does not belong here and bring her home with him. (She is sure Rodin is behind her commitment; he is a thief of artistic ideas, she says, with designs on what few items of value she had.) We meet Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent) about an hour into the 97-minute running time, when he parks his carriage outside a majestic cathedral filmed underneath a lavender sky at the precipice of darkness. Paul has had a religious epiphany and is now devoted to the Christian God he describes as omnipresent and infinitely young. When he arrives and Camille runs to him, we already know (and his half-turn away from her confirms) that he will not be discharging her.

They talk of the role of God - he makes an oblique reference to her unwanted abortion of the love child she and Rodin conceived - and she beseeches him to free her from this prison of the soul: "You cannot imagine these creatures. There is too much noise here, and the mistral blows." (Indeed, one of the most beautiful sequences in the picture involves a hike that some of the patients take, nuns in tow, up a pebbly hill to a white bluff from which the entire valley can be seen; as they descend, the famously crazy-making wind kicks up.) She cannot hide - from him or the benevolent director who ultimately suggests Paul take her back - the sorrow that overcomes her as it would a child, the ontological terror of confinement against her will, for an unspecified length of time.

If you want to know how her story ended, you'll have to read the Wikipedia entry: or, better yet (and though it's anything but an evening's light entertainment), see the film.

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