Gifted and tormented sculptor, involuntary mental patient, enduring symbol of female passion quashed by patriarchal convention — Camille Claudel is nothing if not a rich subject for storytellers. "Camille Claudel 1915," the tough and measured feature by Bruno Dumont, is a very different animal from the high melodrama of the 1988 biopic starring Isabelle Adjani. That's no surprise from a filmmaker who traffics in austerity and a performer, Juliette Binoche, who's ever resistant to the obvious and formulaic.
Binoche, the first certified movie star to act in the French minimalist's work, gives herself over to her character's suffering and, in tormented glimmers, her yet unextinguished hope. In her face, utterly deglamorized, the movie finds its true, compelling subject.
Basing his screenplay on correspondence and medical records, Dumont follows Claudel at about age 50, during a few days of the asylum confinement that would claim the last three decades of her life. She's awaiting a visit from her poet brother, Paul (well played by Jean-Luc Vincent), whose self-satisfied devoutness blinds him to her anguish. He's the villain of the piece, even while Camille focuses her fear and loathing on former mentor and lover Rodin, the ghost she can't shake.
Shooting in an actual psychiatric institution, a cloister-like complex with thick, ancient walls, Dumont evokes an atmosphere of oppressive beauty. With real-life asylum patients in supporting roles, he stokes an apt uneasiness in the viewer. Their severe disabilities — most are unable to converse — accentuate Camille's aloneness. In Binoche's masterfully contained performance, Camille's clouded eyes sometimes brighten. If we didn't know how her story will unfold, that spark might have been comforting.
"Camille Claudel 1915"
MPAA rating: None In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing at: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino
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