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Art House: Camille Claudel 1915

Andrew Sun

 

Although not as famous as her ex-lover Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel was still one of France's most admired sculptors of the early 20th century until she was unjustly sent to a mental asylum.

Bruno Dumont's stark and unflinching story of her incarceration begins with a scene of nurses giving Claudel a bath. They think it's pleasant, but for the independent-minded artist, played with taut exasperation by Juliette Binoche, it's deeply humiliating to lose the dignity of doing such a basic routine by herself.

The biographical drama only presents a few weeks - from the year 1915, obviously - of Claudel's almost 30 years' detention at the Montdevergues Asylum near Avalon, but it's enough to capture the numbing, daily frustration she endured after her conservative and religious family commits her for being emotional, strong willed, single and, worse, a woman artist.

Honoured with a world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Camille Claudel 1915 is more than just an ode to a tortured sculptor. Like Dumont's other works, it's an unfiltered view of life as an inane, hellish journey that we all must endure.

As part of the "New French Extremity" filmmakers along with the likes of Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Leos Carax and Francois Ozon, Dumont offers little romanticism for Claudel or her work.

Instead, he's more interested in the suffocation and its grander potential as a metaphor - and his film plays like a realistic version of Waiting for Godot, rewritten with feminism and made explicitly tragic rather than comic.

Claudel's boredom is palpable in Binoche's restlessness. Cooking her own boiled potatoes and eating in silence, not being able to intelligently converse either with the asylum's severely mentally challenged patients, ineffectual nuns or the blank-faced physicians, her intellectual isolation occasionally breaks into uncontrollable sobs and tears. "I'm here without knowing why. Is this joke going to last long?" she says, but the doctor doesn't respond so it's rendered rhetorical.

Her only glimmer of hope are the infrequent visits of her younger brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent portrays him as a holier-than-thou Catholic). She is desperate to convince him, the only one of her family who visits, to release her.

Dumont - whose past films include Life of Jesus, Humanité and Twentynine Psalms is too much of a formalist to spare audiences the drudgery of institutionalism in a remote French countryside. The fact that this is his first period film hasn't altered his thematic viewpoint.

The landscape is as harsh as it is beautiful. The extras, who are real-life patients from mental hospitals, are heartbreaking and awful to watch. Claudel's hardships are exasperating, but the unadorned mise en scène is also mesmerising.

Binoche's controlled performance should warrant attention come next year's awards season. However, the rigorous visual style and oppressive story makes it an unlikely candidate for another Amour-type breakout. So it makes you wonder what's worse - a confined artist or a confined (to the art house circuit) artwork?

48hours@scmp.com

 

Camille Claudel 1915, The Grand Cinema, August 14, 7.30pm; Aug 23, 9.45pm. Part of the Summer International Film Festival

 

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