Biopics often suggest Wikipedia pages, offering encapsulations of their subjects’ greatest highs and lows in a reassuringly coherent manner that’s ill-representative of life in the moment. Often lost amid the time-spanning exposition and Oscar-ready emoting is a sense of habitation, in which filmmakers dare to evoke what a typical day in the life of a legend might be like. In this regard, writer-director Jacques Doillon’s Rodin is a bracing surprise, relating the life of iconic French sculptor Auguste Rodin (Vincent Lindon) in a series of vignettes that suggestively stand on their own while proffering a cumulative sense of Rodin as a man and artist.
Doillon dispenses largely with exposition, assuming that you know at least a few of the basics pertaining to Rodin and his tempestuous love affair with Camille Claudel (Izia Higelin), a much younger student and gifted and troubled sculptor in her own right. The film opens in 1880, and Rodin has just obtained his first state commission: to fashion an epic sculpture inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy called The Gates of Hell. Doillon’s sense of pertinent information is so exacting that he doesn’t even tell us about the never-built museum this sculpture was supposed to grace (for that, you can go to Wikipedia). We’re dropped immediately into one of Rodin’s vast studios, which is dotted with pieces of sculptures in the shapes of hands, legs, feet, and torsos—pieces that are often included in exhibits of Rodin’s work, evoking his methods of gradual assembly. Rodin is already immersed in The Gates of Hell, which will become one of his most famous (though unfinished) pieces, and from which his other legendary works—such as The Thinker—will spring.
Rodin is also in the midst of his affair with Claudel, and the omission of this relationship’s genesis charges the film with a strange tension. Whether we know the story of Rodin and Claudel or not, we feel as if we’ve missed something, as Doillon has skipped the first act of a conventional biopic, in which everyone is gradually introduced to the viewer with yards of unconvincingly descriptive dialogue. This feeling of “catching up” empathetically syncs us in with Claudel, the ingénue who’s charged with reading Rodin’s feelings and discerning her “standing” within a studio that’s populated by gorgeous models and carpenters and Rose (Séverine Caneele), Rodin’s housekeeper and lover as well as the mother of his unseen children.
Much of the film follows Rodin over many years as he wanders his various studios and contemplates his work. The Gates of Hell is a monumental undertaking that’s supplemented with (comparatively) shorter-term projects such as Rodin’s controversial sculptures of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. With Balzac in particular, Rodin had the imagination and the temerity to emphasize his subject’s heft—suggesting the exertion that was necessary for Balzac to write, capturing in the legend a kind of transcendent loneliness that was probably autobiographical on Rodin’s part. But the piece wasn’t a conventional tribute and took years to earn the reputation it deserved. Doillon holds the camera on Rodin for long stretches as the sculptor surveys his clay Balzac, adding dollops of material here and there, adjusting the piece until it achieves a sensual corporeality that is the essence of Rodin’s art.
Lindon gives Rodin a heavy and erotically charged stride that marks him as a male ideal: a working-class stud and tormented artist and intellectual. No wonder every woman in his orbit wants him. When Rodin couples with Claudel or Rose or any number of other female collaborators, Lindon emphasizes Rodin’s insatiable hunger, as he kisses and touches each lover as if each encounter is the last time he’ll ever be allowed to kiss and touch again. Though Doillon omits Rodin’s years as a struggling artist before The Gates of Hell commission, we feel the mark this time has made on Rodin, who never quite knows that he has what he has, which means that he can never have enough. Such panic is simultaneously understood by Doillon to be the product of entitlement, sensitivity, and loneliness. Rodin’s womanizing in this film is intensely sensual without being (entirely) sentimentalized then, and witty flourishes elaborate on how sex becomes for the privileged just a part of business. While Rodin works with a beautiful model, for instance, a worker walks into frame to casually block our view of the woman.
Doillon’s shrewd ellipses emphasize time as a great and uniting humbler and thief, allowing stray moments to suddenly crystallize unexpressed yearnings. Rodin surveys trees with a tenderness that he can’t quite extend to women, and he treats his statues with similarly undisguised awe and reverence. Rodin is openly intoxicated with Claudel, but there’s still a distance, a complication derived from their mutual and unresolvable humanity, which even the greatest art reproduces in a comparatively and soothingly pat manner.
Doillon doesn’t mention the mental illness that dogged Claudel’s life, but we feel it, as she disappears from the film unceremoniously only to continue to haunt it like a ghost. And Rodin doesn’t seem to empathize with Claudel until he sees her sculpture The Implorer, in which a nude woman on her knees holds out her hands toward an unseen someone. Doillon holds his camera on Rodin, sustaining a mood of rapt and heartbreaking silence as the man approaches one of his ex-lover’s greatest creations, clasping the stone woman’s hands. What if Rodin had taken Claudel’s hands in such a way?