DIR: Bruno Dumont • WRI: Bruno Dumont • PRO: Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Brehat, Muriel Merlin • DOP: Guillaume Deffontaines • ED: Bruno Dumont, Basile Belkhiri • CAST: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Luc Vincent, Emmanuel Kauffman, Marion Keller
Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection postulates that when confronted with that which threatens our identity or sense of categorisation – in other words, that which crosses the border between inner and outer – we react with disgust; we throw up or kick out in an attempt to expel that which is threatening our sense of self and our sense of order. Bruno Dumont knows this. And he knows that cinema is about spectatorship. But what if the audience were not merely spectators but complicit in the events of the film? Dumont plays on the recent trend for biopics to challenge his audience: Why are you watching these films? What do you hope to gain? Can you really hope to improve your own lives by watching somebody else’s pain? Does it make you feel good to know that you’re a voyeur during the worst moments of a public figure’s life?
Could this explain the presence of Juliette Binoche? In the first instance of star-power in a Dumont film, the star plays against the viewer. If the viewer is here for Binoche, the viewer is complicit in the entertainment-ification of historical lives. Given the recent controversy around the David Foster Wallace biopic, this is a worthwhile portal of exploration. When we place a cinematic narrative on the life of a real figure – usually a tragic figure or somebody who has experienced extreme difficulty – are we diminishing the human experience? Those worried about the Foster Wallace biopic claim that such a complex and demanding person can never be captured by a three-act structure; that he is in danger of becoming Kurt Cobain or Che Guevara – just a series of quotes and myths.
There is no such danger with Camille Claudel. The sculptor remains as unknown to the viewer after 90 minutes of painfully intimate shared anguish as she was beforehand. “Why are you watching me cry?” Claudel shrieks, ostensibly to a fellow patient at the asylum in which she is incarcerated, but really, we sense, at us. Her fellow inmates laugh or cry. It’s hard to tell. There’s a shortage of teeth. Identities and bodies are hard to pin down. Claudel, played by Binoche, is the only attractive patient in the asylum. Because of this we begin to believe her ramblings – she’s sane; unfairly incarcerated.
Dumont refuses to move his camera and help us to feel safe; to look away. His lens focuses on Claudel as her speeches circle around on themselves, become paranoid; briefly a little saner, then back to madness. While each individual reason she has for her parole sounds valid, as the reasons jumble together their cohesion slips. She is saying whatever she can think of. Is any of it true or honest? Or worse, is it all true and honest? It is this focus on the importance of context rather than the soundbite that makes Camille Claudel 1915 stand out. In one scene, Claudel visits the asylum church. A nun casts her arms over Claudel and says “Hallelujah!” She does it again. Then she follows Claudel out of the church, where she continues to wave her arms and say “Hallelujah!” Removed from the environs of the church, this behaviour comes to appear absurd. She’s not a nun after all. Just another patient. Another category broken.
The film is uncomfortable to watch. Its refusal to engage in traditional staples of the biopic, and indeed its passion for exploding those staples, remove all comforts. Here is madness. A great film.
Camille Claudel 1915 is released on 20th June 2014