It's worth asking what current day Hollywood star would go out of her way to work with some of the most admired but demanding art-house directors of the moment. That is precisely with Juliette Binoche has been doing recently, working with Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Abbas Kiarostami in films that may gain exposure from her presence in them, but that are done entirely on their directors' terms rather than on her star wattage. Nowhere is this more visible than in this meeting between the actress and Bruno Dumont, the austere, oblique director of Hadewijch and Outside Satan in Camille Claudel 1915. It's a meeting that Ms. Binoche sought out and where she abandons herself to Mr. Dumont's stark vision, in a raw, ascetic portrait of a few days in the life of sculptress Camille Claudel after her confinement to the Montdevergues asylum in the French countryside in 1915.

     Ms. Claudel's life and work have been the subject of one previous and more conventional biopic - Camille Claudel, with Isabelle Adjani in the title role and directed by Bruno Nuytten - but Mr. Dumont restricts his view to the period after she has been institutionalised in this establishment that mostly took in the handicapped or the mentally ill and is no longer creating, her willpower and personality chafing at the undignified surroundings, her paranoiac thoughts of persecution given free rein. The underlying subtext is that of Camille as a dangerously subversive figure in a patriarchal world - a talented female challenging the rule of the male law, and stifled as payback in a hellish place where everyone around her is female - but also of Camille as an artist whose quest threw her into an altered state that made her stand defiantly apart. Her isolation is effectively mirrored by the presence throughout of her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), a fervently, mystically religious writer, whom Camille considers the only one able to understand her transcendent connection to art.

     Mr. Dumont, in his traditionally ascetic way, presents the two siblings' anticipation of his visit to Camille at Montdevergues and juxtaposes it to the actual meeting as an anti-climactic moment where they effectively talk past each other, Paul lost in his mystical ecstasies as Camille must remain to suffer in silence in surroundings that mistake her for a loony (in fact, she would never be released from the asylum and died there). The director chose to shoot the harrowing scenes of Camille in the asylum with her co-inmates played by real handicapped actors and their nurses - not out of some exploitative concept but to better give both his viewers and his actress a better sense of what she was up against. Ms. Binoche rises to the occasion with a typically great performance, subsuming herself in the role without the slightest trace of vanity, perfectly translating the sense of a woman sustained by her art and her inner world alone; Mr. Dumont does not shirk the headier, philosophical subtexts of Paul's faith and Camille's martyrdom, meaning this is another of his usually thoughtful meditations on the human condition, and one of his finest - suggesting Ms. Binoche was right all along to want to work with him.

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent
Director and writer: Bruno Dumont
Cinematography: Guillaume Deffontaines  (colour, widescreen)
Art director: Riton Dupire-Clément
Costumes: Alexandra Charles, Brigitte Massay-Sersour
Editors: Mr. Dumont, Basile Belkhiri
Production: 3B Productions in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, CRRAV Nord-Pas de Calais and Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains
France, 2013, 95 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Cinemaxx am Potsdamer Platz 9 (Berlin), February 11th 2013


Diarmuid said…
Wonderful insight to this odd but wholly worthwhile film

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