While Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 film Camille Claudel attempted to encompass virtually all of the titular French sculptor’s life, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915’s aim is much narrower. It focuses on what feels like just a couple of days in 1915 when Claudel, imprisoned at a mental institution close to Avignon, awaits her brother Paul’s visit with the hopefulness of a hysteric who’s about to meet her savior. While Nuytten’s pseudo-epic structured itself around Claudel’s relationship with Auguste Rodin, he’s physically absent here—and all the more present for it, haunting Claudel’s thoughts and pushing her from her precarious psychological balance to manifested “madness.”
From the beginning, we realize Claudel’s sanity is, however, the least compromised of all the asylum’s inpatients. She mostly keeps to herself, irked by everyone else’s loud acting out and occasionally sobbing. In a way, she’s the big sister, asked to look after some of the less stable patients, and allowed to hang out in the kitchen since she’s under the impression someone might poison her food. Not that much happens in Camille Claudel 1915 in terms of events, apart from Claudel’s surely disappointing meeting with her brother (all he has to offer her is froideur), but the little bit that does happen is all in Juliette Binoche’s face. This is, in fact, a film about the human face and how madness and sanity can be decided based on whether or not one’s own face is in sync with everyone else’s. Does one smile without the need of a joke, bounce their head back and forth when there’s no music, or open their mouth long enough so that they drool? Do they weep without warning? Do they wear their emotions on their face, or do they call on the properly catalogued compartments where they’ve been properly stowed away when necessary?
Binoche’s face, as we know, can tell a million stories in a simple and brief rearrangement of her facial muscles. It’s this incredible skill, a quiet gut-wrenching facial theater, that sustains the film with its series of long takes seeped either in complete silence or in uninterrupted soliloquies—which sometimes feel televisual, though in a European manner. There’s also the face of Claudel’s doctor (Robert Leroy), etched deep in wrinkles and hermetic insensitivity to her pleas for freedom. As well as the face of the severely ill, repulsively frozen in a kind of emotional short-circuit. These are, ingeniously, sculpted faces much more than they are cinematic. If Rodin’s face is missing, it’s as though his hands were responsible for the gaucheness of the ones that have remained. In this sense, we still, from Nuytten’s film until Dumont’s, only look at Claudel as a satellite of Rodin, aimlessly circling around his absence in the hopes of feeling whole again.