The most politicized film of this year’s Berlinale celebrated its premiere in today’s Competition section. Closed Curtain by Iranian director and film world cause célèbre Jafar Panahi represents the second violation of his 20-year ban on filmmaking. Despite a direct appeal from the German government, Panahi’s travel embargo was not lifted for the film’s premiere, so his co-director Kamboziya Partovi presented it instead.
Closed Curtain’s opening establishes the film’s tone and self-referential focus: from the inside of a house, a long stationary shot shows the view through the bars of a locked window gate where in the distance, inaccessible, lies the wide open sea and the world beyond it. A persecuted screenwriter, played by Partovi, takes refuge in the house with his dog and blocks out all the windows with black curtains to avoid detection from the authorities that are looking for him. One night a young woman and her brother arrive. They are also on the run and, despite the screenwriter’s protests, the brother leaves his sister at the house. The girl starts tormenting the fearful screenwriter, and when she eventually rips down all the curtains, the walls are decorated with the French and Italian film posters for Panahi’s The Circle and The Mirror. Then, Panahi himself steps into the frame.
For the rest of the film Panahi plays himself, the girl remains his fictional creation, and Partovi moves between fiction and nonfiction. This initially bewildering experiment allows Panahi to reflect on his situation as an artist haunted by the ideas and characters to which he is forbidden to give expression, a predicament that sinks him into depression and inspires suicidal considerations. Much like his previous This Is Not A Film, the documentary he shot on an iPhone and smuggled to Cannes in 2011, Closed Curtain is far too personal for those unfamiliar with Panahi’s real life story to appreciate. Even for those acquainted, it may at times prove too cryptic and slow a viewing experience, necessitating thorough post hoc analysis to grasp a lot of the import and symbolism. Nevertheless, considering the minimal means at Panahi’s disposal—along with the single setting, the film was shot on a 5D camera with a tiny crew of friends and supporters (Panahi and Partovi even divided boom-operating responsibilities)—and the fact that everyone involved participated at great personal risk, it’s an admirable testament to the significance of art, and a stirring demonstration of its indomitability.
Camille Claudel 1915
In another example of the surprising number of thematic parallels amongst the titles in Competition, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 also concerns the stifling of artistic creation through imprisonment. In his first film based in historical fact, Dumont depicts an early portion of the 29 years that Camille Claudel, the French sculptor and former lover of Auguste Rodin, spent locked up in a psychiatric asylum.
Although indicative of the director’s signature style and thematic preoccupations, the film represents a departure in a number of ways. Not only is it the first of his films that doesn’t concern itself with sexuality, but it’s also the first to star an internationally famous professional actress. Juliette Binoche, who reportedly contacted Dumont asking him for a role in his next film, plays Camille Claudel. Either way, Dumont’s decision to use Binoche was wise as it’s a performance that, aside from only two monologues, relies almost entirely on close-ups of her face to express the agony of being imprisoned. Although she’s no Maria Falconetti, Binoche is excellent in the role, one of her best to date.
It would not be a Dumont film without the central theme of grace. However, its treatment loses some of its vigor by being uncharacteristically straightforward. Borrowing Hermann Hesse’s favored dichotomy of the artistic versus the spiritual, Dumont pits Camille against her brother Paul. The latter is a draconian Christian who keeps Camille locked up for life because he views her as morally corrupt (her abortion of Rodin’s child is referred to obliquely), not because he believes she is mentally unstable. The film’s portrayal of the severely disturbed women with whom Camille lives (played by actors who suffer from mental illness in real life) provides its most admirable feature, never resorting to exploitation of their condition. When compared to the opening scene of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love in which a group of children with Down syndrome are shown riding bumper cars, Dumont’s approach becomes all the more laudable. Seidl lets himself off easy by implying that if the viewer laughs, then it’s due to his or her own moral failings. In Camille Claudel 1915, no such subterfuge is necessary, as there isn’t ever the slightest trace of ridicule, abjection, or even cheap compassion, but only pure and inexorable humanity.