A review of the French Blu-ray release of Bruno Dumont’s unsettling biopic.
Bruno Dumont is one of the bravest and most distinctive filmmakers working in cinema today, his films going to places that few others would dare to approach. Using non-professional actors, improvisation and minimal dialogue or exposition, the subjects of those films also can be somewhat challenging of the sensibilities of an audience used to a more obvious narrative structure and purpose. His latest film Camille Claudel 1915 is something of a departure for the filmmaker. It’s far away from his regular home ground of Bailleul and Flanders; it’s essentially a period film; and it has a big name actor playing the title role. In all other respects however, Camille Claudel 1915 is very much in familiar territory for a Bruno Dumont film. Which means that it’s far from easy viewing.
The impetus to make the film about Camille Claudel came from a suggestion by Juliette Binoche, just around the same time that Dumont had a vague intention to work on the subject of a woman in a state of extreme mental breakdown. The film consequently deals with the period when Camille Claudel, a sculptor and sister of the poet Paul Claudel, having been institutionalised for a number of years, has been moved to a mental institution in the south of France around the time of the outbreak of the Great War. Her behaviour deteriorating after breakdown of her relationship with Auguste Rodin, a distressed Camille fears that Rodin is jealous of her work, and that he might attempt to poison her food to get rid of her and take over her studio.
Mostly improvised (necessarily so considering the mental disabilities of the majority of the cast) and partly scripted from journals, correspondence and writings of Camille and Paul Claudel (with even Camille’s medical records taken into account), Dumont’s film has little more of a structure than a build up to a promised meeting between sister and brother. The film takes the perspective of Camille’s anticipation of this meeting, all of her hopes poured into it, all of her fears surrounding it. For his part, Paul, who has recently undergone a profound religious reawakening, considers the greater mysteries of God’s will and the purpose He has for all of us.
Dramatically, there’s not a great deal more to Camille Claudel 1915 than this, and it might seem like an arid subject for a filmmaker like Bruno Dumont to approach. The questions that are raised by the experience of Camille Claudel however are certainly related to those that Dumont has explored in previous films. All of them are concerned to one extent or another with a search for a greater purpose or meaning to suffering, trying to find a reflection of it or an expression of the inner turmoil of ordinary people in the nature of the region they inhabit. In the case of Camille Claudel, art is another way of searching for some kind of meaning, but it seems that Dumont also permits madness itself as an ultimate means of expression.
Having destroyed much of her own art, the deranged Camille lets all her feelings out in an uninhibited fashion, screaming and raging at the cruelty and ugliness of the world that surrounds her and by how badly it has mistreated her. And yet there is beauty there too, and perhaps God in a fashion, in those typically Dumont meditative reflections on nature, the landscape, the sun and the sky. Even in the midst of such terrors and human suffering, a walk up the mountains near Avignon amidst the rough rocky terrain, seems to offer the patients of the asylum a moment of temporary respite from their suffering, the fragility of their condition contrasted with the enduring majesty of the world around them.
Dumont’s own sensibility and his distinct filming technique means however that he never resorts to any simple cinematic shorthand to express such lofty ideas. He may have perhaps the finest actress of our time in Juliette Binoche to work with here, but what makes her performance truly great is in how she is able to touch more deeply on the real humanity or inhumanity of her condition in this film through her interaction with a cast that is almost otherwise entirely made up of non-professionals and people with severe mental disabilities. The scene where two institutionalised inmates enact a scene from Don Juan in an amateur play, for example, shows how effective this oblique approach is, allowing the director to touch on the question of art as an expression of a much deeper condition. This pathetic but touching performance evokes a strong reaction in Camille towards her own experience as a misunderstood and mistreated woman.
There are few other directors who would attempt to express such a sentiment in such a way, or even risk placing it in the hands of performers whose actions and ability is not just limited but completely unpredictable. The reason this approach yields such remarkable results is that it’s not so much that Bruno Dumont has something he wants to tell an audience, as much as he knows where to look for it. In a cast of ordinary people, damaged people, filmed unsentimentally and realistically without a trace of falsehood or manipulation, he finds something that is closer to nature, closer to the essence of humanity, closer to God than anything else you’ll find in modern cinema.
Camille Claudel 1915 is released in the UK by Soda Pictures on DVD only. The French Blu-ray, used for the purpose of this review, does not have English subtitles. The sharp crystal clear 2.35:1 image gets across the harsh surroundings of the asylum, as well as the contrasting warmth of the sun that falls on the cold stone of the building and the land. The audio track is DTS HD-Master Audio 1.0 mono only, which is presumably the director’s preferred sound mix for the film. There’s a 52-minute feature (‘Regards sur le tournage‘) on the making of the film in the extra features of the French BD. The interviews and behind the scenes filming give a clear idea of the director’s intentions, his techniques and the extremely challenging conditions in which the film was made. French Hard of Hearing captions are available for the feature film but there are no English subtitles, and there are no subtitles at all on the extra features. The packaging indicates that the BD is Region B encoded.
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