Bruno Dumont’s French biopic Camille Claudel 1915 is a sombre tale of absent romance and art. Often overwrought and rather harrowing, Dumont’s account of Camille Claudel’s (Juliette Binoche) confinement to a mental asylum in the South of France is something of a deprived and drab experience. In the winter of 1915, the once-sculptor Camille now resides in an asylum left by her family and relatives, the drama peaks on the arrival of her brother Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent) as conspiracies unravel concerning her confinement. Dumont’s contemplative film aims for a sophisticated and meditative chronicle of Camille’s isolation and abandonment, although it is all rather tedious and somewhat awkward at moments.
Dumont’s stark drama focuses on Camille’s interior strife and the misery of her life is mirrored in the mute aesthetic of the film. The quietness of the asylum is frequently interrupted by the sounds of weeping and hysterical outbursts of Camille’s inmates at the refuge. Camille’s idleness and her subtle behavioural ticks and idiosyncrasies create a strange paranoia and madness. Her pale and sickly face is frequently framed in close up, detailing the pain of her suffering. We are asked to diagnose what appears to be only a remotely sane Camille. The surprising everydayness of Camille’s errands slowly uncoils as the plot unwinds. She goes about her day, gliding from location to location and her regular visits to the chapel where she mumbles inaudibly creates an eerie, spiritual mood. Upon the arrival of Paul, the silence is broken and the themes of religion, spirituality and responsibility become abundant although, rather ironically, Dumont seems to create a purgatory to bar the neglected Camille despite being in the care of nuns and on religious grounds. She is confined to the asylum out of some yearning for atonement and becomes a hollowed out troglodyte in a spiritual search for her old life as an artist. What is more suffocating about Dumont’s drama is not Camille’s isolation in the asylum but her imprisonment within patriarchy. As Camille claims, she’s “no longer a human being” but a “criminal” suffering and controlled by old and religious men.
Camille Claudel 1915 requires patience. In the 95 minutes duration, little progression is made with Camille’s character of as she waffles through her paranoia and anxieties for a past hardly known to the audience. Her artistic endeavours were cut short by some delusional conspiracy Camille concocted in her unstable health and the only thing that gives her hope is the news of her brother’s visit. Dumont does manage to wonderfully capture the loss of art and love from Camille’s life. On a walk, Camille moulds a clump of clay in her fist and hurls it out of sight in a fit of rage. The austere moment suggests Camille’s growing frustration at the world around her and her lost artistic touch. The film can be rather ambiguous as characters are not sufficiently introduced, locations are left undisclosed and events are told via a mentally unstable and questionable Camille. Most of the scenes of hysteria are dramatic, but the story is insufficient and told mainly through title cards and textual cues.
Juliette Binoche laboriously communicates Camille’s solitude. Her malnourished frame and sunken facial features emphasise her waning mentality. Binoche’s performance is reserved, choosing to withhold emotion and avoid overtly physical nuances, instead pursuing a subtle and coldly indifferent portrayal. However, sudden fits of joy, sadness or anger offer moments of rare and genuine difference and are the only clues the audience gets into the more colourful potential of her personality.
Despite the film’s peculiar spiritual undertones, Camille Claudel 1915 is a restrained drama that imparts an odd sense of insomnia and madness. The film’s time frame is odd by choosing to intimately and relentlessly study the character over three days rather than tell a more cohesive story. In this way, Dumont’s film is structured like a diary; the everydayness in her routine and the intimacy and added secrecy about Camille is recorded like extracts in a personal memoir. Unfortunately, Dumont’s ode to Camille’s suffering is often too tedious and uninteresting and consequently reads like a closed book.