Sculpting Cinema

Sculptress Camille Claudel (1864-1834) is probably best known for what is not known about her. The period of her life in the 1880s and 90s is well-documented: we know that she worked in Auguste Rodin’s Parisian atelier and became his student, muse, and eventually, his mistress. But it would be a mistake to reduce her to the role she played in someone else’s life, or to the tragic, yet captivating fate that befell her when their relationship ended and Claudel withdrew from the world into “in-sanity” and the imprisonment of her own mind. That episode has served as an inspiration for many books and films (notably the 1988 Camille Claudel by Bruno Nuytten, with a young Isabelle Adjani in the title role): films and books that were ultimately more about Rodin than Claudel.

In contrast, French director Dumont (La vie de Jésus, L’humanité, Flandres) became interested in Claudel’s life in the aftermath of all those events, during the thirty years she spent institutionalized in a mental asylum in the South of France. In the documentary Camille Claudel 2012, he explains that it was the notion of nothingness which especially attracted him to Claudel: the reality that we know nothing (or almost nothing) about her incarceration, the fact that he had to write a screenplay starting from nothing, the suggestion that (most likely) nothing much happened in that Vaucluse asylum in Montdevergues, and most importantly, the way that this idleness and inactivity appealed to him cinematically. How does one film the passing of time? Not even in terms of temporality, just stasis?

Even though Camille Claudel, 1915 takes place over only three days, these three days feel endless and out of time. They are days spent in expectation. Camille awaits a visit from her younger brother, the writer Paul, whom she anticipates will hold the key to her release. There is little dialogue, little explanation, but every split second is filled with hope, to the extent that we viewers are led to believe that this film will hold the power to undo history and see to her release.

In a way, it does. It liberates Camille Claudel from the myth and the stigma of the artiste maudite, the accursed artist, the outsider, from her tragic claim to fame. Here in Montdevergues she is not an outsider, but an insider; most significantly, she is an insider within the universe of the film, within the eye of the camera which moves around her with a sculptor’s hand.

Camille Claudel, 1915 is as much about hands as it is about faces. These faces are, in the end, what appear and re-appear under the gentle, observant camera’s touch. They are Bressonian faces, blanks that stare back, faces that recall Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. In one of her most courageous roles to date, star actress Juliette Binoche allows us to look at her unmasked face: no glamour, no cute little blush, no make-up. Just her skin as transparent as skin can be. Not a buffer against an outside world, but a nude and uncovered and vulnerable membrane that exhales all her character’s pains and neuroses. She is not different from the other “actors”: real people suffering from mental illnesses, the inhabitants of the present day Montdevergues. They do not play (except in a play-within-the-film); they are not directed. It is the “unexpected” which directs this film, allowing Dumont to capture their pains and joys and shrieks and shudders, allowing him to apprehend the reality of the situation.

Thus the film transcends the traditional biopic. Camille Claudel, 1915 is not “about” Camille Claudel, but within her. And there we encounter the questions. Unbroken, unspoken questions about the way wayward women were (and are) marginalized, pushed outside of society, about the socio-political usage of “madness”, about the way we are (in)capable of looking at the “other” and their “otherness” in the eye. About art and life. Are we repelled by our own convictions and morals and taboos as they blind our eyes and make our hands numb and senseless?

Look at that hand. It picks up a stone. It sculpts the empty space, the nothingness around it. And then drops it. With that image Bruno Dumont recreates the best piece of art Camille Claudel (n)ever made.

Edited by Lesley Chow