Having begun the year with an Ira Levin kick - reading Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives - the claims of insanity placed on Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche) immediately registers as the workings of a male hegemony run amok. Following a tumultuous creative period with both lover and confidant Auguste Rodin, Claudel would be diagnosed with schizophrenia and entered into a church-run mental institution. The legitimacy of this diagnosis, along with her institutionalization, remains dubious, particularly when understood that it was Claudel’s spiritually-inclined brother who instigated and perpetuated her incarceration. What Camille Claudel 1915 presents is a study of how the human psyche of a brilliant artistic mind can be left to waste by those of considerable social authority - where artistic passion and spiritual fervor serve as mutually exclusive forces.
If Camille Claudel 1915 operates under any narrative propulsion, it’s that after years of institutionalization, Claudel is looking forward to her brother’s visit in the upcoming days. Left in exile and stripped of the ability to communicate with friends and family, Claudel roams the decadent asylum with an acute awareness of her surroundings. The other inmates are non-actors and actual residents of the asylum. Some possess contorted features while others acknowledge the camera with a sense of wonder. Dumont utilizes their presence, as well as the sisterhood that rounds out the cast, as a means of highlighting how Claudel serves as an outsider and does not belong. Her ability to function, to articulate and actually serve as caretaker for the residents, confirms her cognizance. But paranoia encumbers her abilities, where the time spent in the institution is taking its toll on not just her creative abilities, but her grip on sanity.
In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett notes how “There's only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming”. The trauma endured by Claudel is the stripping of her creative identity, of her basic human qualities. Dumont opens the film with the sight of Binoche’s neck. “You’re always dirty, Claudel” says one of the nuns, where Binoche is stripped of her clothing and plunged into a tub. The grimace on Binoche’s face may indicate an awareness of her surroundings, but it also advises the audience that this torturous ritual can only be withstood for so long before that awareness wears away; a resident of the asylum follows in the same ritual, though her obedience and absent facial features indicates an absence of thought.
There are problems that occur throughout Dumont’s film, most notably in its shift of perspective from Claudel to her brother, Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent). Here, the film serves to define the spiritual interpretation of why Claudel has been imprisoned. These scenes involving Paul lack emotional poignancy (which, perhaps, is the point) and are motivated by rhetoric. The point is honed in a bit too precisely and undercuts much of the natural ambiance established within the opening hour of the film. Still, Camille Claudel 1915 never quite loses its way, in large part because of Juliette Binoche. Some of the grotesque imagery that Dumont depicts could have bordered on exploitation when it’s followed by a close-up shot of Binoche’s face. But her ability provoke contradictory notions of cynicism and humanism within a scene, while stripped of any sense of gloss, simply reconfirms her status as one of the most nuanced and intelligent actresses of the day.