A Few Days in the Life of a Misunderstood Artist Are Seen in Camille Claudel 1915
The facts of Camille Claudel’s life are well known by now, as she has become something of a feminist icon. This strikingly beautiful, brilliant and furiously passionate woman can be considered as one of the world’s most underappreciated artists in her own time as was the great Frida Kahlo. Claudel (Juliette Binoche, in the performance of a lifetime) began to distinguish herself as a promising sculptor in her early 20s at a time when women weren’t even allowed to enroll in the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Her big breakthrough was being allowed to apprentice with the world’s most famous sculptor at the peak of his fame, Auguste Rodin. It was both a blessing and a curse. She became his mistress, and he used her work as if it were his own, then cast her aside. Her passion turned to madness, and in her anger she lashed out at herself by destroying much of her own work.
This is where Bruno Dumont picks up the story. The film covers only a few days of her life at the Montdevergues asylum, where she has been committed by her family, and where she insists she doesn’t belong. Her sad demeanor shows that the place is wearing her down, and possibly worsening her problems. If you weren’t mad when you enter the asylum, after associating with people who can only make guttural sounds and scream and stumble through life, led around by the nuns who run the place, you would probably go mad before long.
Claudel stands out among the patients for her obvious intelligence. Her breakdown into tears from time to time seems perfectly rational given her situation. Her only obvious flaw is her paranoid belief that Rodin is trying to poison her, which leads her to insist on preparing her own meals. She convinces even us that she doesn’t belong at Montdevergues, but rather at home with her family. The only person who can save her is her brother Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent, in a wonderfully uptight performance), a well known author and diplomat, and the only family member who visits Camille. His role takes the film on a strange track, as he pontificates about God and how the universe is the way it is because God made it. His cryptic replies to his sister’s entreaties, couched in religious/poetic rhetoric, are less than reassuring.
Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 film, Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérad Depardieu, told the story of Claudel and Rodin’s relationship. Dumont’s focus is narrow and relentless: the heartbreaking aftermath of the relationship, a portrait of a woman who lost everything in life that meant something to her. It’s a testament to what art can do to a fiercely determined artist: It can make you feel whole or it can destroy you.