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By Michael Sicinski
Not long after the release of Bruno Dumont’s third film, his infamous American folly Twentynine Palms (2003), James Quandt published his equally infamous polemic against the “New French Extremity” in the February 2004 issue of Artforum, where he placed Dumont on the naughty list right alongside Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé, and Philippe Grandrieux. Nearly ten years later, we can now of course see both Quandt’s article and Twentynine Palms rather differently—who, for instance, could have predicted at the time that Breillat would get over her Rocco Siffredi fetish and begin producing such intricate, fascinating work? Or that Noé would be the proverbial one-trick pony? But in light of Dumont’s later trajectory, his California foray Twentynine Palms can be seen as a significant transitional work, one that not only summons the spirit of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) but squelches that film’s measured optimism. Ending as it does with the murder of Russian émigré Katia (the late, great Katerina Golubeva) by her American lover David (David Wissak) after 115 minutes of fucking, fighting, and driving, Palms demonstrates that the generosity of the untamed West extends only so far. No matter that Katia is about as even a match for David as one could hope, the vast maw of Manifest Destiny swallows her whole—and, not to put too fine a point on it, Dumont further takes the romanticized lustmord so beloved of cine-modernism (cf. the Sada Abe story) and restages it as the man-on-woman violence that it almost always actually is.
Dumont’s work has, of course, evolved over the years, while still retaining his signature materialism, a focus on how his characters are both burdened by and manipulate the physical stuff of the world around them. This has led to endless Bresson comparisons, and while Dumont is without a doubt a student of Le Maître Robert, the very opening of L’humanité (1999) demonstrates Dumont’s specific cinematic rendering of gravity’s force. Det. Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), running away from a crime scene, stumbles and lies with his face in the mud; the man is brought to earth with a thump, and then he simply settles, as if absorbed by the earth’s force of stasis. This is miles away from the lithe, balletic movement of objects or gestures in Bresson.
I take this detour through Dumont’s old backroads as a circuitous way of arriving at his latest effort, the micro-biopic Camille Claudel 1915, a film sufficiently different from the auteur’s previous efforts that it is winning him new admirers. The presence of a genuine movie star in the title role (Juliette Binoche) surely accounts for some of this uncharacteristic interest, but Claudel also evinces a sheen of placid professionalism and a tamped-down directorial style never before seen in the Dumont filmography. Only Hadewijch (2009), with its steely cinematography and somewhat conventional editing rhythms, comes close—and much like Hadewijch, Claudel is a portrait of female anxiety in extremis with an actual thespian at its core, and Dumont organizes both films into a fairly strict three-act structure. But this is where the similarities end, since Hadewijch’s polished, seemingly less feral approach was a red herring, designed to show how Julie Sokolowski’s poor little rich girl could truly shuttle off this material world and transubstantiate through fanatical love and fire. She was the softer side of suicide, which made her sacrifice all the more disturbing, as if we didn’t really believe she or Dumont would be crazy enough to blow all that beauty to smithereens. By contrast, Claudel is a well-manicured curio designed to showcase not only Binoche’s star turn, but also a not especially illuminating position-paper in French intellectual history.
We know, thanks in part to Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 white elephant, that Claudel (Isabelle Adjani in that film) had a tumultuous relationship with Rodin (Gérard Depardieu), who left her and became Rodin™ while she slipped into obscurity and, according to her family, hysteria and paranoia. As the “1915” in the title indicates, Dumont’s film hones in on a narrow but significant band of time within Claudel’s life, thereby avoiding the flabby aesthetics that almost always obtain where biopics are concerned. Instead, we witness a year of Claudel’s confinement to the Montdevergues Asylum near Avignon, an intensive focus that renders “Rodin” an idea rather than a presence (and, as is mentioned several times, a distant image of persecution at that). We never see Claudel sculpt. (There is one brief scene of Claudel drawing a lattice gate in a sketchbook, which she promptly scribbles out in frustrated rage.) She is seen wandering around the grounds; she is asked by the personnel to assist with other patients; she takes walks with groups, and on occasion goes to the chapel to pray. But there is very little in Claudel’s daily life that moves in any way beyond the basic frustrations of a relatively sane woman driven to the edge of madness by an unjust confinement.
While Dumont predictably, and thankfully, spares us the agonizing Tradition of Quality histrionics of Nuytten’s film, on a formal level Camille Claudel 1915 also lacks the raw materialism of other Dumont films. There are reasons for this, as there is a complex semiotics at work here. To begin with, Binoche, glammed-down though she may be, operates as a bit of a special effect in this context, as the supporting players who people Montdevergues are actually performers with various mental disabilities, non-professionals who worked with Dumont along with numerous medical and mental health consultants. I should specify from the outset that I take issue with some reviewers who have zeroed in on this casting decision and held it up as evidence of exploitation. There is no reason whatsoever to assume coercion, or to think that individuals with Down syndrome or other cognitive disabilities would be incapable of participating in such a production with informed consent. Even the suspicion that the non-professional performers may be on hand to provide the physicality and grit that is so often the hallmark of Dumont’s cinema—the mottled carnality of Flandres (2006) or the weather-beaten farmland of Hors Satan (2011) giving way to missing teeth and squinting eyes pushed close together by permanent baby fat—is not really the worst of it. Exploitation is pretty banal these days, after all. Spare us the fainting couch: we can handle it, and we know that everyone got paid. (Besides, compared to films by Ulrich Seidl and Crispin Glover, Dumont’s work with cognitive-atypical actors is fairly tame.)
No, the real trouble begins when it becomes clear that some of these performers are onscreen in order to provide a kind of instant complexity to our otherwise one-note heroine. The “real” mental cases (who of course are not insane but disabled, and so are no more deserving of this particular fate than Claudel) are there not to make Claudel/Binoche more beautiful by comparison, but uglier—they are the pure souls of infinite patience, and as they “torment” poor Camille, we observe her rage spilling over into an overt lack of empathy. One of the only noteworthy scenes in this shockingly inert film occurs when Claudel runs crying from a play rehearsal, overwhelmed by the tragic absurdity of the whole affair. (Before this she was laughing patronizingly, perhaps trying and failing to will herself into some rarefied realm of the Surreal.) One of the other inmates, Mrs. Lucas (Alexandra Lucas), rushes out to comfort Claudel. Lucas has been trying to befriend her throughout the film, but this does not stop Claudel from making her the target of every ounce of her pent-up fury. “Get away from me!” she screams. “I don’t want to see you!”
Although Lucas (the actress) provides a suitably shocked reaction, one can tell that she has been prepared for Binoche’s Method madness; she is performing, and there is no sense whatsoever that Dumont has duped an innocent into providing a “real” horror for his rolling camera. Nevertheless, what this scene and several others do provide is a counterpoint to Claudel’s victim narrative, a touchstone for guileless human compassion that Claudel, the “sane one,” has come to lack. Thus, Camille Claudel 1915 “complicates” its title character by recourse to one of the hoariest clichés of the humanist art cinema: the idea that the simpleminded are purer of heart than the worldly and, in this Catholic context, perhaps closer to God as well. (Compare the scene in the chapel between Claudel, praying for release, and the woman who chants “Hallelujah” for no reason in particular.)
If Dumont wants to place Claudel’s historical betrayal by Rodin at a distance, and ends up depicting the artist herself as a woman pushed beyond the brink of charity or even basic decency, the film makes its arguments regarding Camille’s younger brother, the poet and playwright Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), even clearer. This is the point at which Camille Claudel 1915 relinquishes any pretense of being a dramatic exercise and moves quite fully into polemical intellectual history, tinged with a kind of rampaging presentism that can make of Paul Claudel only the most simplistic kind of villain. As if to produce a burned-in afterimage upon his very appearance, his sister continually praises him like a potential saviour in the long hour before his arrival; then, just as the third act begins, Dumont stops the film cold (which is saying something for such a torpid film) to allow Paul to articulate his supplicant right-wing Catholicism, first in prayer, then in a scathing letter “from a brother,” discussing the sin of abortion. Is it to Camille? Someone else? A letter he’ll never send? Or something he will incorporate into one of his plays? We cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that Paul will ignore his sister’s entreaties, assume a supercilious tone, and refuse to help release her from Montdevergues. (Even the head physician counsels Paul that Camille could live an independent life, but he will hear none of it.)
Given the sheer volume of Paul Claudel’s intellectual biography that Dumont provides in the film’s final third, it is fairly evident that Camille Claudel 1915 is a declarative statement disguised as a work of aesthetic ambiguity. Paul’s religious and political beliefs, which are juxtaposed with his decision to abandon Camille to lifelong incarceration, are implicitly to blame for his sister’s fate. Patriarchy is given a name and a face, and it isn’t Auguste Rodin. Whatever crimes of the heart and mind he may have committed against Claudel, Rodin remains a giant of progressive humanism; hence, his rehabilitation is far more necessary for the dominant narrative of French modernism than the purely optional Paul Claudel.
It’s not my intention here to defend Paul Claudel: I am just noting that Dumont’s project is one that seems to commit two interconnected errors that are worth examining, especially since the film resulting from said project is so mundane and unassumingly dull as to divert much interrogation. The first is to restage old tropes of intellectual impurity—the unstable, selfish Romantic and the misguided Fascist-Modernist—within a framework that naturalizes them, namely a drab but highly professional cinematic style. (We know that Paul Claudel was an anti-Fascist, but his stringently conservative Catholicism scans here as a kind of dictatorship of male bodily renunciation, and this style of being has a stereotypical tenor in the spectatorial imagination.) The notion that creative types aren’t like the rest of us is driven home by the counterweight of cognitive-atypical individuals whose broader subject positions are effaced so they may represent an ahistorical vision of Christian kindness. The second, related error is that the story of Camille Claudel, who didn’t “deserve” to be locked away in a mental hospital, is organized by Dumont for maximum present-day resonance. Paul Claudel the right-wing patriarch vs. Camille Claudel the inconvenient woman labelled a hysteric, with holy fools scattered between them: this is crass movie typology combined with a contemporary urgency that seeks to make Camille stand in for all the women who, even today, are trapped by their families in psychiatric care for reasons having to do with their desire for independence, their rejection of religion, their sexual orientation, or their political beliefs.
All of this makes Camille Claudel 1915—which, it should be evident by now, is really Camille Claudel 2013—a “good” film, one that cares about things happening around it. But that, sadly, does not make it any less reliant on simpleminded notions of good and evil, mind and spirit, sacred and profane. Before now, Dumont has made films that I would consider wrongheaded or ill-conceived, even offensive; such is the journey of a complex artist. But Camille Claudel 1915 is the first Dumont film I would truly consider boring. Everything it works so hard to convince us of, we have heard so many times before.