"Madhouses are houses made on purpose to cause suffering…I cannot stand any longer the screams of these creatures."—Camille Claudel in a letter to her brother Paul
Cinema can be one of the most empathetic of arts. When done well, its immediacy, its sense of experiencing another life (fictional or not) can bring about an expansion of understanding, an overwhelming telescoping of consciousness. "Camille Claudel 1915", the latest by French director Bruno Dumont, is that kind of cinema. It tells the story of three days in the life of Camille Claudel, gifted sculptor and one-time protege and lover of Auguste Rodin. Claudel was committed to an asylum in 1913 by her brother, poet/diplomat Paul Claudel, following the death of their father (a man who had always been in her corner). Dumont uses only Claudel's medical records and the letters that Claudel and her brother wrote to one another, as the material for his script. The result is a story pared down to a bone-white gleam, a grim portrait of monotony and silence broken by unrelieved despair, and an almost suffocating sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. It's a harrowing film, made even more so by the raw performance of Juliette Binoche as Camille Claudel. By the end, you are left with a feeling of helplessness, rage, and a kind of abstracted bafflement. How did this happen? You want to intervene (the key sign of a classic tragedy). All credit to Dumont and Binoche here, who approach their difficult subject without blinking.
Camille Claudel was the rarest of creatures: an artist celebrated in her own time (and a female artist, no less), but after the dissolution of her relationship with Rodin she began to fall apart. She lived as a recluse in her Paris studio, still sculpting (some of her best work comes from this period), but more often than not going on rampages where she smashed everything she had created. Her paranoia was acute. She felt persecuted by Rodin, and regarded him as an omniscient, sinister creature. The reality, of course, was more complex. Rodin had recognized her genius, had brought her under his wing, and looked at her work with admiration and awe. Years after their affair ended, Rodin said of Claudel, "I told her where to find the gold. But the gold she mined was her own." On his death bed in 1917, he asked for his wife, and when his actual wife was brought to him, he murmured, "No, no, the other one," meaning Camille. Camille Claudel would not have been comforted to know this. All of this ground was covered in sweeping melodramatic detail in Bruno Nuytten's 1988 biopic, with Gerard Depardieu as Rodin and Isabelle Adjani as Camille, in an Oscar-nominated performance. That film ends with Camille entering the asylum. Camille Claudel would live for 30 years in confinement. She died in 1943.
In 1915, the year Dumont's film takes place, Camille still had hope that she would be released. Even the doctors at the asylum did not think it was appropriate that she be locked up. She was clearly much less sick than the other inmates. Filmed in an actual asylum in France, using the actual residents of the asylum as the supporting cast (a choice that may be seen as sketchy, and yet is effective in the result), the interiors are cold and almost grand. Dumont often uses non-professionals in his films, and the nurses and doctors in "Camille Claudel 1915" are played by the actual staff at the current-day asylum. They help ground the film, and, conversely, they help highlight the unfairness of Claudel's incarceration. It is so obvious that she does not belong there. The paths around the asylum are all gravel, and the sound of feet crunching on rocks fills the film, jarringly. It brings up images of Claudel's smashed sculptures back in her abandoned studio in Paris. The film has almost a scientific exactitude: Here, look, see, here is what she ate, here is what her room looked like, here is the orchard, here are the hallways. There is no music in the film, nothing to distract from Camille's reality, and nothing to sentimentalize or underline the emotions. Camille herself rarely speaks, and when she does, in a visit with the resident doctor, her words pour out of her in a devastated flood of betrayal and desperation. She begs to be released.