Camille Claudel Bruno Dumont Critique Essay

Bruno Dumont's film is in many ways his most daunting yet, a film endowed with that distinctive sort of post-Bressonian severity, a spiritual quality that appears to call upon the mysterious certainties of Christianity without endorsing them. It is a deeply sombre, deeply affecting film, based on real events, about the ordeal of Camille Claudel. She is played with passion by Juliette Binoche, who shows that in a role really worthy of her, she is still a compelling star. Claudel was a sculptor and lover of Auguste Rodin; after a brilliant and scandalous career she suffered a breakdown, and in 1913 was incarcerated in an asylum for the remaining 30 years of her life – deprived of all artistic materials – at the evident insistence and instigation of her devoutly Catholic brother, Paul.

The movie is like a triptych in which Claudel occupies two panels and Paul one; we track Claudel's existence in this spiritual gulag in 1915, virtually moment-by-moment, and then Paul arrives in the film's final third and is given the same kind of soliloquised presence as Claudel. He first offers up a rapt and almost mystic prayer at sunrise (a Dumont trope, incidentally, to be found in his earlier film Outside Satan), and expounds his fiercely Christian sense of himself and the world. It is certainly difficult to find in Paul's behaviour to her anything other than the obtuse incomprehension and envy of a greater spirit: difficult, in fact, not to be reminded of Edith Sitwell's remark about TS Eliot's first wife Vivienne being committed to a mental institution: "Tom went mad and promptly certified his wife." Yet Paul, played here by Jean-Luc Vincent, is endowed with a certain eerie calm and certainty, a formidable self-possession.

Part of the film's disquieting quality is that it does not simply invite us to rage against the obvious patriarchal injustice. Binoche endows her role with dignity, which accumulates into a tragic grandeur. She has a wonderful angry monologue addressed to the ageing asylum director, and a great scene in which she watches the inmates rehearsing a production of Don Juan (a fanciful invention on Dumont's part, surely, perhaps inspired by the Marat/Sade). At first she smiles at the performers' innocence and the absurdity of Don Juan's conceit, and then sobs at the reminder of her own former lover. Almost everything she sees and hears overwhelms her with irony or poignancy. This is stonily austere movie in many ways: a tough watch. Claudel's calvary was a terrible waste of a life and of a talent that could have been nurtured back into flower, yet Dumont subversively insists on seeing Paul's view that her artistic genius, like all secular human achievement, is a kind of self-imprisoning vanity. Well, Paul was allowed to contemplate this idea at liberty; Claudel was not. With this movie, Dumont adds to a body of commandingly serious work.

There are at least three beautiful things in Bruno Dumont’s depressing new film. First, there are cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines’s precise visual compositions. Stark and minimalist, at times they resemble classical Dutch painting. Second, there’s the film’s use of light—and Dumont’s patience with it. He employs lingering shots of the outdoor sun coming in through a gauzy window, or the light on a wall, or the shadows on a rug. Third, and most important, is Dumont’s use of light as metaphor for the radiance of Camille Claudel’s heart and soul.

Camille (Juliette Binoche), one of history’s great tortured artists, is seen eking out a semblance of life in a rural lunatic asylum. From her prayers, and the look in her eyes, it’s clear that the light of God is within her. Aside from her brother, Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), God is the only thing she can cling to. The barely-there narrative hinges upon Paul’s impending visit.

Dumont surrounds Binoche with mentally handicapped actors—an unsettling choice that heightens the sense that Camille does not deserve her fate. He also makes Paul something of a heartless loon, so that when his much-anticipated visit takes place, it’s not long before Camille makes a scene, confirming her brother’s worst fears. Paul, in fact, has had a transfiguring experience, triggered by reading Rimbaud, and his own obsessive Catholic patter makes him seem even more off his rocker than Camille. It’s an impossibly hopeless situation, yet Dumont’s craft and Binoche’s face somehow achieve transcendence.

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