Film Review: Camille Claudel, 1915 (France, 2013)

Poor Camille Claudel. The famous artist would create a lasting legacy of sculptures and drawings that are still important and relevant today. But she was also one tortured artist. Camille Claudel 1915 attempts to capture all of these emotions and feelings. It’s also a French biopic that is a claustrophobic chronicle of three days in her sad life.

Claudel sounds like an interesting character but this film doesn’t really capture the essence of all this. She had a long affair with fellow artist, Auguste Rodin and had an early, creative period. But she would eventually end this relationship after Rodin refused to leave his wife. Despite this, Claudel acted like the woman scorned and descended into madness and despair. Her family would put her in the remote institution Montdevergues, near Avignon in France.

Director, Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms, Outside Satan) uses these solemn grounds as the setting for Claudel’s story. The three days are based on letters she sent to her younger brother, Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent). It’s questionable whether Camille actually belonged in such a place. She was angry at Rodin and was paranoid that people were out to poison her. But in the film she is often portrayed as being lucid and holding a sense of contempt for the arguably more handicapped in-mates (who are played by actual disabled people in the same way as the nurses are real-life nuns and staff members).

Juliette Binoche does an excellent job as the lead character. She is subtle and convincing as the artist who is forced into a painful situation. It’s a tedious life in the institution and her only beacon of hope is a visit from the brother who can have her released. But Camille is a lot like Angelina Jolie’s character in Changeling- the more she argues for her sanity, the more the institution seems determined to restrain her.

The film is very minimal, there are sparse visuals and the greyish colour hue only adds to the tedium of this prison. There is also very little music and background noise. Instead, there are long pauses where the silences prove deafening and things only change when this is offset against long, wordy monologues of dialogue. Instead, much of the story is told on Binoche’s face with Dumont favouring close-ups and creating something equally authentic, unsettling and demanding in the process.

It’s arguable that the full story of Claudel’s life is actually crystallised in the events that pre-date these three institutionalised days. These are also the more exciting and important moments in her life- but these have largely been tackled before in the eponymous film starring Gérard Depardieu, released in 1988. The two are very different beasts as the current one was mostly improvised and this character is so much more tragic. The doom and gloom make it difficult to warm to Claudel, especially as her life is so boring and repetitive. But Binoche – to her credit – has done a good job with the material in helping create such a mature, emotional and melancholy character.

Watching Binoche’s pained exterior in the film is a lot like how you would imagine life was like from Claudel’s perspective in her most lucid moments. At times it’s pretty and tranquil but for the most part it is dark and plain exasperating and troubling. It’s terrible that she was never able to return to her work but perhaps even more tragic that this missed opportunity of a film fails this woman who has suffered enough to account for several lifetimes.

Review Score: ONE STAR (OUT OF FIVE)

Duration: 95 minutes.

This film was reviewed earlier this year at Sydney Film Festival. It appears in limited Australian release from this Thursday, November 14th.


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