Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1138, 7 - 13 March 2013
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1138, 7 - 13 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Camille Dumont

Bruno Dumont’s last film is a gem by any standard, writes Samir Farid from Berlin

Camile Claudel 1915
Camile Claudel 1915
Al-Ahram Weekly

The 63rd Berlinale (7-17 February) saw, in its official competition, the world premiere of the French filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 -- the seventh full-length fiction film by Dumont, who was born in 1958. Since his first film, La vie de Jésus (1997), Dumont has used the language of cinema to express his vision for the greater human issues `– something that became widely acknowledged with the release of his second film, Humanité (1999). He is the legitimate descendant of France’s great philosophers, in terms of his interest in relations between the individual and others, whether close/similar or unrelated, with a focus on the individual in existence at the level of both reality and metaphysics.
Regardless of what you actually think of any one of his films or how you evaluate it, in his work Dumont affirms the fact that, like any literary form of expression, film is a creative and philosophical language. Indeed the value of a film whose purpose is to express a philosophical issue perhaps derives from the dramatic correlative the director finds for the topic at hand and to what extent he manages to connect the two, how the form of expression seamlessly reflects the issue and in what sense it can be said that the form is the content.
Camille Claudel 1915 finds an ideal dramatic correlative for reason and madness, love and hatred, by exploring the relationship between August Rodin and Camille Claudel –the best known male and female sculptors of their time. They were linked not only by sculpture but love too, yet Rodin refused to marry Camille, the sister of the famous poet Paul Claudel, believing that she is mentally ill. Indeed her own family placed her in an asylum where she remained for nearly 30 years until she died. Indeed this is the second pseudo-biopic on Camille Claudel, following  Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 Camille Claudel, in which Isabelle Adjani played Camille. It revolved around her love affair with Rodin.
In this film, however, Dumont does not so much deal with the relationship as use it to formulate the issues with which he is preoccupied; Rodin never appears in the film at all. Set in the asylum in 1915, the film concentrates on Camille, by then an inmate for over 20 years. With the exception of a few scenes in which Paul appears, the camera never departs the asylum. The film is structured around Camille waiting for one of Paul’s rare visits, one of which actually occurred in 1915. Instead of action in the conventional sense, there are minute details through which drama is cumulatively built one shot after another and one scene after another. This indeed is pure cinema in one of its sublime registers. Dumont wrote the script and joined Basile Belkhiri in the editing, something you would think he had to do.
The film starts with a mid-range shot of Camille (Juliette Binoche) from the back; it ends with more or less the same shot but from the front. The first development is her cooking her own food, since she feels there is a conspiracy to poison her. Camille seems sane enough in her relations with inmates and nurses. She is later seen, equally sane, with her doctor, asking him to persuade her family to let her out of the asylum; he agrees. He informs Paul when he arrives to visit, but Paul refuses. Shooting asylum inmates is like walking a tightrope: the idea is to show their illness but without indignity, and without robbing them of their essential humanity through voyeurism, sarcasm or – even worse – slapdash humour. Dumont walks this tightrope with panache, so much so that the viewer totally sympathises with the inmate just as Camille does.
Dumont deploys frame size with extreme precision, which makes appearance and content one in every sense of the expression. There are a limited number of general views of the place where the asylum is located, showing the beauty of nature with the building like a church or temple. Most other shots are mid-range, placing a mental distance between the viewer and the scene thus inviting thought and contemplation. There are three closeup shots, only three.
In the first, while Camille is having a walk in the garden, she picks up a piece of mud out of which she nearly makes a statue, but she changes her mind and throws it away. Binoche acts out this scene with her fingers, expressing both the longing of the sculptor to go back to what she likes best and her fear of sculpture, together with the tension and stress from which she is suffering.
In the second shot Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent) is seen prior to his visit to Camille, writing in his room, naked, and the camera closes in on his face, on which there is such tension the viewer senses a degree of imbalance that might explain his contradictory position on his sister, on whose treatment he spends much money, showing love and care, but refusing to let her out.
The third shot occurs during the climax, Paul’s visit, during which Camille tells him what she has told him repeatedly before: that Rodin labelled her insane and spread the news because he didn’t want her to be greater than him as a sculptor, whether in his lifetime or posthumously; she makes insistent pleas to return to Paris and to life. She tells him she misses her mother, and that his own children deserve the money he is wasting on the asylum. When Paul refuses after all this, she is not angry or hysterical; she continues to call him “little brother”.
In this film Juliette Binoche plays one of the roles of a lifetime, if not the role of a lifetime, managing to use her eyes and movements to convey extremely sensitive and deep emotions – not to mention the way she delivers the dialogue. She embodies Dumont’s questions about the difference between sanity and insanity and the confusion of hatred and love with extreme power. Did Rodin love Camille or was he jealous of her? Did her family love or fear her? Paul wrote poems on his love of his sister. The film reveals he was religious, speaking to a monk in church; did he insist on keeping her in the asylum out of the conviction that she would get better or was he hoping that she would die there (which she did)?

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