Friday, May 16, 2014

'Camille Claudel 1915' (2013) directed by Bruno Dumont

The sculptor Camille Claudel was committed to an insane asylum in 1913. Thirty years later she died there. Camille Claudel 1915 shows us just three days of this thirty years, just a tiny fraction of her total incarceration though more than enough to demonstrate what it is to be locked into a hell with no escape, to have hope beaten from your body and  your mind destroyed.  To put it mildly, this is not a barrel of laughs.

Born in 1864, Camille Claudel was a talented sculptor, the disciple and lover of Auguste Rodin. After realising that Rodin wouldn't marry her she left him, secluding herself in a studio and living a detached, artistic life with just her cats for company. From a modern perspective we see that she was suffering the signs of mild, treatable schizophrenia: paranoia and delusions of grandeur.  After her supportive father died - she was summarily committed to an asylum on the orders of her brother, the writer and diplomat Paul Claudel.

We meet Camille adrift in a nightmare; surrounded by the screeching, the drooling and the manic - treated with clinically invasive politeness by the nuns that drift around the building like pitch-black, stony-faced ghosts.  Camille herself looks like a half erased pencil sketch, her beauty being systematically scrubbed away by a neverending procession of daily humiliations.  Mostly silent, Dumont locks his camera onto her face - pale skin stretched over her skull like an old bedsheet drying in the sun, eyes suspicious and darting, mouth pursed tightly as she tries her hardest not burst into tears.

Juliette Binoche is stunning in the lead role.  Under the asylum regime the old Camille is gradually disappearing, and so Binoche underscores every tiny tic and glance with a sense of loss.  Dumont has worked in about as much misery as 90 minutes of film can bear, but the biggest emotional wallop is the way Binoche plays Camille as someone who knows not only that she's gradually being disassembled but that the process is inevitable.  Every day she loses a tiny fragment of her genius and talent and it's never coming back.  There's a particularly utterly heartbreaking moment where Camille picks a piece of clay from the floor and compulsively begins to shape it, quickly realising that whatever artistic skills she once possessed have faded.  She tosses it away, disgusted and humiliated by what's happened to her, and bursts into tears.

Binoche does an awful lot of crying, sobbing and general weeping here - totalling probably around 10 minutes plus of the run-time. All the while Dumont dispassionately closes in her with clinical precision, the director eyeing her like he's a butterfly collector about to pin her to a board.  When she's not in floods of uncontrollable tears, Camille exists in state of tense, brittle stoicism, totally silent for large portions of the film.  When the dam does break the words spill uncontrollably from her as she bemoans the state of her life, the cruelty of those around her and her painfully simple desires for freedom and privacy.

Dumont contrasts Camille's abuse-victim poise with excruciatingly disturbing close-ups of the other residents.  The film is shot in a real-life asylum, and these supporting characters are played by the actual patients.  It's difficult to summarise what it feels to stare into their eyes.  They grin through mouths of smashed teeth, saliva drooling from their chins, staring blankly at the camera.  Their faces look subtly warped, devoid of modesty, vanity and self-awareness. Do they know they're in a movie?  Do they even know what's going on?  Dumont refuses to blink, holding these shots for as long as humanly possible, forcing the audience to intellectually and emotionally engage with the patients. It's exhausting and traumatising - we soon realise that this just another facet of Camille's life - the only sane woman in an insane world.

Striated right through the film is a strong Christian morality; the cold charity of the nuns couple with the omnipresent statues of the bovinely demure Virgin Mary that dot the institution. Eventually Camille's brother Paul arrives to visit, and we cut away from the asylum to track his progress through the countryside.  At one point he gets out of his car and kneels on the side of the road, making a disturbingly submissive prayer to God about putting his fingers in Christ's wounds.  Right from our introduction to the character it's pretty damn obvious that this guy isn't going to be much help to Camille.

His presence in the film signals an abrupt swerve into theological debate, including a slightly bizarre scene where he sits butt-naked in a monastery writing a psychologically byzantine letter about his relationship with God.  I was a bit dismayed that we'd cut away from Camille for a bit, and Paul's theological masturbations are, to be frank, kind of tedious.  This is the one misstep the film makes - though even this serves to illustrate the hypocritical division between Camille's socially unacceptable mental illness and societal subservience to God.

Dumont's film is so hellish, so overbearing and so devoid of hope that we're left in little doubt whether or not there is a God.  This is a cold world where Camille's beauty and art are smashed into fragments against spiky rocks.  Here, compassion and love are absent: if there ever was a God for Camille Claudel he's either dead or a complete monster.  The pious Christian smugness of viewing others misery as a necessary spiritual cleansing experience, "moving in mysterious ways" is exposed as a crutch to obviate their own guilt at their actions.

Camille Claudel 1915 will leave you angry and miserable.  We know from the off that, for all her hopes of release, Camille will never leave this nightmare, her final destiny a forgotten carcass tossed into an anonymous grave.  The mark of how good this film is is that you find yourself wanting to swoop into the film like a superhero, bash the walls of the asylum down and save her life.  But we can't.  She and everyone else in the film are just dusty bones; their misery eternal.  So I can't exactly wholeheartedly recommend Camille Claudel 1915 as a fun night out.  But it's a fantastic piece of cinema precisely for that reason: suffocating, harrowing and as grim as it gets. Be warned.


Camille Claudel 1915 is released on 28th June

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