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Locked in an asylum

27 June 2014

Stephen Brown sees a new film about art and transcendence

Costly acceptance: Juliette Binoche as Camille Claudel in new film Camille Claudel 1915 (Soda Pictures).

Costly acceptance: Juliette Binoche as Camille Claudel in new film Camille Claudel 1915 (Soda Pictures).

IT WOULDN'T take long to learn the script for Camille Claudel 1915 (Cert. PG). Most of the film concentrates on Juliette Binoche's face, the camera (reminiscent of Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc) slowly moving in on it. It's remarkable how much she conveys without word or action.

The film is based on correspondence and notes of this real-life sculptress and her brother Paul. The date in the title is when she and other inmates at a mental asylum were transferred to Provence as northern hostilities increased. The 1988 film Camille Claudel ends with her entry into an asylum. The current film begins soon thereafter. Camille keenly awaits a visit from Paul. Before "voluntary" incarceration, she had been a successful artist, a pupil and mistress of Auguste Rodin. She is convinced that powerful men, threatened by female talent, have stolen or destroyed much of her work.

Before making films, the director, Bruno Dumont, taught philosophy. As in previous work, such as Hadewijch (Arts, 17 February 2012) and Hors Satan (Arts, 4 January 2013), he encourages us to adopt a spiritual rather than religious perspective. It is art, not Christianity, that provides opportunities to experience transcendence. Yet Camille, after her breakdown, has all but abandoned art. Any transcendence comes through her continued Roman Catholicism.

Although asylum staff suggest Camille's release, Paul believes he does God's will by keeping her locked up until she dies 28 years later. Staff members are sympathetic to her situation: one even carries forbidden letters in and out of the building for her. What makes Camille's circumstances the more depressing is that all the other residents seem grotesque by comparison. Dumont has defended his use of mental patients and staff to highlight Camille's ordinariness, a device similarly employed in 1975 by Milos Forman in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. And if Dreyer, a religious sceptic, is one touchstone for Dumont, then the other is the fervently RC Robert Bresson, whose use of long meditative shots to expose our inner souls comes into play here: all those silences where we are left to imagine what's going on inside Camille's head.

What does she make of this visit by Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), the younger brother now in charge of her fate? He fails to return her eager embrace. His staunch Catholicism is aghast at Camille's former bohemianism. He reprimands her wishes for release by echoing Job 11.6: "God allows for experience, Camille. He allows us to fall into sin to confirm the secrets of his wisdom." And, while we witness only three days in Camille's life, they represent the rest of it: a costly acceptance of a continuing plight.

She transcends her circumstances in so far as she perceives and lives in another world from the one in which she is placed. Judging from Binoche's face, it feels more like purgatory than heaven. Fra Giovanni Giocondo comes to mind: "There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we only have to look."

Camille may well be looking, but it isn't clear to me that Dumont's notions of transcendence, visually if starkly beautiful, ever reach an equivalent point for her.

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