It does not look that bad to us at first, but, as following her imprisoned daily life, we slowly realize how terrible it is for her to live there for the rest of her life. Yes, she is still struggling with her mental problems, but she looks less crazy compared to others, and she is aware of her confined condition unlike them. That certainly drives her crazy, and she desperately wants to get out of this confinement.
Bruno Dumont’s “Camille Claudel 1915”, which can be regarded as a sequel to Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 film “Camille Claudel”, presents us three days of its ill-fated artist heroine, and it is an experience both vivid and bleak. Here is a talented woman who could have lived nicely outside the asylum but was unfairly denied of that chance, and the movie calmly but powerfully captures how it must have been felt like for her to live in such a drab environment which would make any normal person bored to death – or craziness, perhaps.
It is 1915, and Camille Claudel(Juliette Binoche) has been in the Montedevergues Asylum at Montfavet, which is located six kilometers from Avignon. It has been around two years since she was ‘voluntarily’ committed to a mental hospital in 1913, and she is eagerly waiting for her younger brother Paul to visit her because he may release her from this place which has been suffocating her spirit day by day.
As depicted in the 1988 film, Claudel had a long, tempestuous affair with Auguste Rodin during the 1880-90s and then was plunged into mental illness after the breakup with Rodin, but now it seems her darkest years are put behind her. Though still showing the signs of paranoia along with occasional emotional outbursts, she behaves normally compared to other patients, and most of the staff members treat her generously; they even allow her into the kitchen to relieve her paranoia on poisoning although it is strictly against the hospital rule.
Nevertheless, this place feels like a hellish prison to Claudel. She is usually surrounded by various mental patients mostly incapable of communication, and, as human beings already confined in each own craziness, they are not someone you want to spend some time with. They shout or wail or make other noises, and you may come to understand how much effort is required to take care of mental patients as observing their loony behaviors throughout the film. They are not some stock characters from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”(1975); they are people with real mental problems in the serious need of medical care.
The director/writer Bruno Dumont paid lots of attention to the realistic details of his film, and his approach is interesting to say the least. The movie was shot at several locations in the psychiatric hospital which the Montdevergues Asylum later became, and the real staff members of the hospital were also hired to play their counterparts in 1915. In addition, the mental patients in the movie were actually played by the patients of the hospital, and that odd casting choice gives a considerable amount of realism with the sparse, natural approach of the film. I have no idea on how they were directed to give their performances in front of the camera, but it goes without saying that their hopeless state shown in the film has something impossible to be imitated by professional acting, and that certainly adds more bleakness to the movie.
Dumont also put painstaking efforts into presenting a slice of Claudel’s life. The screenplay was based on his diligent pre-production research on not only the writings left by Claudel and her brother but also the medical records on Claudel, and I came to know later that many of the lines in the film directly came from their own writings. The result is an engaging film which draws us into its realistic mundane background, and we are accordingly immersed into that while identifying with Claudel’s stifled condition.
Around the second half of the film, Paul Claudel(Jean-Luc Vincent) finally comes to see his sister, and Claudel is excited to see him, but we sense from his very first scene that (this is not a spoiler at all) he is not going to save her from this unbearable mental predicament. Maybe he is a good brother who really cares about his unhappy sister, but we feel a gap between them during their meeting because of his stiff Catholic faith as well as her mental illness. Like his sister is passionate about her art, he is so focused on God and his glory that he seems to forget that human compassion preached by Jesus, and he does not understand at all how much his sister needs his mercy – even when psychiatrist gives him a professional advice that she can lead a normal life outside the asylum despite her mental problems.
The movie keeps maintaining its calm attitude even as it is arriving at its quiet but devastating finale, and so does Juliette Binoche, a wonderful French actress who has always drawn our attention effortlessly in many of her memorable performances during more than 25 years. Whenever the camera beholds her during its frequent close-up shots, she ably carries the scenes alone with her expressive face, and it is compelling to watch even when she does not say anything; because we can see all that from her face, she does not have to tell us how frustrated and desperate her character is.
“Camille Claudel 1915” is a slow but rewarding film which also works as a good companion piece to the 1988 film, and you may enjoy this film more if you watch it after the 1988 film, which is also a very good film on its own. Whatever Claudel feels or thinks at the very last scene, it is apparent to us that her fate is sealed with her talent, and there is an undeniably tragic feeling in that moment. To any artist, there is no punishment worse than career terminated forever, and, sadly for her and us, she will suffer it for very, very long years.
I am reminded of Sylvia Plath….
Somebody is shooting at something in our town—
A dull pom, pom in the Sunday street.
Jealousy can open the blood,
It can make black roses.
Who are they shooting at?
SC: A nice poem.