Camille Claudel 1915 – Review by Frank L.
Director: Bruno Dumont
Writers: Paul Claudel (letters), Camille Claudel (letters)
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent, Emmanuel Kauffman
In Ireland, we are on the cusp of having to face the reality of the consequences of incarcerating people who are considered by “society” socially undesirable. What is perceived as “undesirable” changes with time. In Ireland, pregnancy outside marriage was considered socially “undesirable” and the full force of the State and the religious institutions was brought to bear on the girls, not the boys, who transgressed the societal norms. Insanity and inherited abnormalities were also an affront to society, to cater for these undesirables the large mental institutions, which glower on the outskirts of many a provincial town, are testament to this means of social control on a large scale. However take heart Ireland is not unique. In this regard, the story of Camille Claudel 1915 demonstrates that France too has unpleasant truths in its closet that need acknowledgement.
Camille Claudel, born in 1864, was a French sculptor of some considerable genius, a pupil of Boucher and then Rodin with whom she had an affair. She was supported in her life as an artist by her bourgeois father. It would seem her mother was less than supportive. Her younger brother Paul, a poet and a diplomat with a deep religious conviction, appears to have become the paterfamilias of the Claudel family after the father’s death and was responsible for committing Camille to a mental institution in March 1913. The film concentrates on a short period of time in Camille’s incarceration in 1915 when she is expecting and looking forward to a visit from her younger brother Paul.
Dumont shows in slow excruciating detail the grimness of the daily round in this monotonous, restricted life. The boredom is broken to an extent by outbursts of some of the other inmates who are very far from having all their faculties. Dumont shows their facial and physical differences in excruciating detail. He has used current inmates of a French mental institution so the images have an intensity which is very disturbing for the viewer as the reality is difficult to watch. It makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing.
The nuns who look after all of these inmates are unfailingly gentle and polite. Patience is at a premium and is displayed. Camille Claudel (Juliette Binouche) is very different from these other inmates or “creatures” to quote the word she uses. While she may have mental fixations and delusions, she is clearly a person of considerable intellectual achievements. Her fellow inmates are not. While she may need help, this is patently not the place where she will find it. Yet this is where her brother has chosen to incarcerate her. Binoche at all times plays the part of Camille with an intense belief of her difference from her fellow inmates and the nuns. All she possesses is her physical self and her thoughts when she is allowed to be alone, but of course her solitude is regularly interrupted by another inmate wanting to touch her or one of the nuns wishing to make small talk. It is a sterling performance of simplicity by Binoche.
We watch 3 days of this hell in Camille Claudel’s life. She was to remain in the institution for thirty years. You are left having mixed emotions of rage, disbelief and impotence. Where to begin? How to begin? It is not a pleasant film to watch but Claudel was one famous victim of familial incarceration and we will hear of many more in the coming months and years. This film gives us an insight into the physical and mental horror of forced incarceration and society’s complicity in its practice. It is a good beginning for what lies ahead.