If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working. What holds true in the healing arts can hold true in the arts of drama and cinema. There, it is other people’s suffering we witness and gain wisdom from. At the same time it can be, in the richest sense, our suffering. If truths are wrung from a film like Bruno Dumont’s luminous, powerfully moving Camille Claudel 1915, as from Electra, Antigone or Phèdre, it is by way of own hearts’ wringing.
Juliette Binoche’s astonishing performance makes Camille seem our own alter ego. We live, think, feel, breathe with her. This French actress, who becomes more formidable with every film, is harrowing as the French sculptor who paid with her freedom for being, also, a famous sister (to poet Paul Claudel) and one-time lover-mistress (to Auguste Rodin). Claudel, plus other members of his family, ensured Camille’s incarceration in an asylum near Avignon. She was there for 30 years until her death in 1943. Dumont has us meet her in 1915 when Camille was Binoche’s own age of 50.
Binoche is as bare of make-up as the film is bare of comforts. The director of L’Humanité and Hors Satan doesn’t do wall-to-wall carpeting, real or metaphorical. Bare stone, bare wood resound to lives bereft of anything we could name as creaturely communion: only soliloquies, catechisms, or the animal-human sounds of grief, joy, exclamation. There is barely a plot either. Yet that itself – the non-plot – becomes the plot. Camille’s life has become as formless as the clay she used to mould. In one scene she picks up a clod of earth in a forest, kneads it for a moment intently, curiously, then discards it in angry, bewildered despair.
The only “formed” lives are those of her notional betters: mainly her Catholic brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), whom the film introduces on the road to the asylum, as if in wry invocation of that earlier Paul on his pre-saintly road to enlightenment. This Paul launches, aptly if surreally, into a poetic prayer to the all-seeing, all-caring God whom neither Camille nor filmmaker Dumont believe in.
As non-plot becomes plot, so “shapelessness” finds its own shape. The film gathers mass, power and beauty as if unguided. Dumont determines the invisible rhythms. Camille’s silent-gazing interludes outside the asylum’s door (sky, clouds, a bare tree like a supplicating hand); her ritualistic audiences, of lucid yet useless protestation, with the asylum’s Father; the sudden bursts of anger or baffled tenderness with fellow inmates (played, provocatively yet with persuasive power, by real patients); and the anticipated catharsis of Camille’s meeting with Paul, which proves no catharsis at all, only a cruel, cleansing re-recognition of her lonely defiance and the limitlessness of its sentence.