That date in the title of Bruno Dumont’s ‘Camille Claudel 1915’ is doubly crucial. Not only does it reflect the story’s focus on a specific moment in the life of the sculptor, but it differentiates this film from an earlier movie of almost the same name from 1988, starring Isabelle Adjani. That was a fittingly energetic account (deploying Adjani's raw intensity) of Claudel's younger years, as a successful artist taught by, romantically involved with and rivalling Rodin. Unsurprisingly, this film from the director of ‘L’Humanité’ and ‘Hadewijch’ is an altogether more restrained affair, depicting her later incarceration in an asylum near Avignon.
It’s arguably the writer-director’s finest achievement yet. Atypically, he makes use of professional actors in the lead roles, and is rewarded by fine work from Jean-Luc Vincent as the hapless heroine’s poet brother Paul and by a wonderful performance by Juliette Binoche as Camille. Conveying the intelligence, anxiety, anger and isolation of an artist abandoned by her family, unable to work and forced to live with women mostly far less capable even of surviving than herself, Binoche displays both eloquent expertise and an admirable control wholly in keeping with the simplicity and clarity of Dumont’s uncompromisingly authentic script and direction. (Rightly, if perhaps controversially, the other inmates of the asylum are mostly played by non-professionals who are themselves severely disabled in real life.)
Such story as there is deals with Claudel’s despair at her situation and her forlorn hope of release. Mercifully, even though the last third of the film allows Paul to discuss – at perhaps too great length – his passionate Catholic beliefs, this is not one of Dumont’s woolly ventures into mystificatory abstraction; sticking to various historical documents, he simply focuses on Claudel’s painful predicament as a woman, an artist, a depressive, and a sentient, intelligent human being. Eschewing metaphor and mysticism (save insofar as his characters adopt them), he has for once given us a film of immense visual beauty, thematic clarity and subtle resonance.