Camille Claudel 1915 Juliette Binoche

Among highly regarded auteurs, France’s Bruno Dumont may command the least affection. It’s not because his films are severe; there are other filmmakers who cultivate extreme austerity yet invite viewers to partake of the bleakness in a way that’s somehow inclusive. That’s why it’s possible to emerge oddly elated from, say, Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse—you feel pleasure at having shared a vision, however pessimistic.

With Dumont, you suspect that he doesn’t give a damn whether you share his vision or not; there’s an often icy self-containment about his films, which in any case elude being pinned to any clear meaning. When Dumont’s endings appear to offer closure—as in the redemptive embrace that closes Hadewijch (09)—it’s hard to know whether he isn’t actually deriding the very notion of catharsis and conclusion. And while his films invoke spirituality and transcendence, there’s always the suspicion that he’s proposing a bitter critique of such notions as merely sentimental.

Dumont’s career has been uneven, ranging from the spare brilliance of his debut The Life of Jesus (97), a quasi-naturalistic drama of working-class youth, to the overblown existential thriller Humanity (99), in which he seemed fatally mesmerized by the idea of his own auteur loftiness. Let’s not mention Twentynine Palms (03), a draggy, deranged remix of Zabriskie Point. Hadewijch and its successor Hors Satan (11), however, were controlled, intensely surprising minimalist narratives—and they seemed to offer a workable format for the “Bruno Dumont film” that the director might have comfortably continued with indefinitely. Instead, he’s now blindsided us with Camille Claudel 1915, which is both a departure and a consolidation, in that it pushes his characteristic spareness and seriousness into emotionally charged new terrain.

Camille Claudel 1915 Juliette Binoche

It’s the first film in which he’s cast a bona fide star, Juliette Binoche, and his first about a real-life figure. Camille Claudel was a hugely talented sculptor, sister to the Catholic poet-playwright Paul Claudel, and for many years the companion of Auguste Rodin. Her relationship with Rodin was the subject of a stormily romantic 1988 biopic, Bruno Nuytten’s Camille Claudel, with Isabelle Adjani. Dumont, however, addresses not the public life but Camille’s withdrawal from it; the film depicts the period of Camille’s incarceration in an asylum in Montdevergues, near Avignon. Based on extracts from the Claudels’ writings and correspondence, and the medical records of Camille, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, this concise (95-minute) film is low on incident, apart from the final third, in which Camille receives a visit from her brother. Largely it evokes the strange mixture of monastic calm and crushing monotony of Camille’s long confinement (her family never agreed to release her, and she died in Montdevergues in 1943).

Dumont shows us what appears to be a set of typical moments in Camille’s residency. She boils the potatoes that seem to be her only diet, prays in the asylum chapel, writes to a friend, and most often sits in the garden and in the house, usually alone. She gazes at other patients, at a leafless tree that resembles a modernist sculpture, and—in a series of shots all the more emotionally charged for their utter mundanity—at sunlight through curtains, on a wall, and on a carpeted floor. Camille also angrily protests against her family’s mistreatment of her in a session with her doctor—a five-minute scene of two long takes joined by a brief reaction shot. While this meeting comes across as a unique event, we might also imagine it as a single instance of an episode recurring over and over, week after week, perhaps word for word, in Camille’s life. Who knows whether Camille didn’t spend her life ritualistically acting out the same script, without hope of ever achieving a final cathartic curtain call? The element of theatricality is underlined when Camille watches other inmates rehearsing Don Juan: an awkward, childlike performance, but one which first amuses her, then moves her, and finally causes her bitter distress with its mention of love and deception.

Camille relates to the other patients tenderly, like an indulgent older sister, although at one point she loses patience and rages at them. Her fellow inmates mostly have physical impairments, as a result of Down syndrome or similar conditions, and are played by real-life mental patients. One of the film’s provocative insights is the reminder that although they may look classically “mad”—in the vein of 19th- and early 20th-century clinical illustrations of hysteria—we can’t rely on appearances to tell us that Camille, with her composed beauty, is any more mentally robust than her peers.

Camille Claudel 1915

Dumont’s casting of mental patients is a confrontational gesture, and not only because these people are, initially at least, uncomfortable for the viewer to spend time with. It may seem a cruel stunt to place a star—one famously identified with grace, beauty and intelligence—among people with severe learning difficulties and physical deformities. Dumont might be accused of exploitation, but he addresses his theme in a very concrete fashion that shows how mental suffering affects, and is rooted in, the body and its relation to the world. He shows the patients, apparently, as they really are; it’s never clear in what sense they are acting, or to what degree they’re capable of doing so.

The film certainly requires us to examine romantic received ideas about mental illness. Given Camille’s semblance of calm, which we know conceals profound inner turmoil, it is all the harder to assign to the ever-present beaming smile of inmate Mademoiselle Lucas (Alexandra Lucas) any connotations of natural joy. Any spiritual or poetic values traditionally assigned to madness, especially in literary circles—insight, illumination, innocence—come under the cold light of dramatic scrutiny.

Indeed, the figure who seems least equipped to participate in any balanced social order is Paul, whose assertion of the values of divine exaltation makes him inhuman to a degree approaching derangement. The film shifts tack some 55 minutes in, to show the poet en route to visit Camille. We see Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent) intoning a severe, joyless prayer by night (“You are the given Word, studded with iron nails”), then writing about his sister in a way that suggests a punitive rather than compassionate attitude (“Is it possible to exorcise her at a distance?”). He tells a priest about his spiritual conversion: first an epiphany on discovering Rimbaud, later a dramatic illumination in Notre-Dame Cathedral. In the context of Camille’s story, the Paul interlude carries a bitter ironic thrust. For all his beatific talk, it’s clear that Camille—who weeps tears of joy at news of his coming, decking herself in flowers and ribbons to meet him—will get a cold reception when the siblings meet, in a crimson-walled room that might have been painted by Munch. She makes an impassioned protest against her imprisonment and against what she sees as a male conspiracy by closed minds who “stole her genius”—an extended tour de force of lucidly impassioned argumentation. The distant Paul can only respond by plying her with coldly pious cant: “Everything is a parable, Camille.”

Camille Claudel 1915

But Dumont’s film is not a parable; it’s intensely real and concrete. It doesn’t allow us to see into Camille’s mind or feelings—nothing so intrusive—but it communicates a powerful sense of how her incarceration might have felt, in all its monotony and its strange calm (Montdevergues comes across, with unsettling ambivalence, as both prison and safe haven). The film’s concrete power comes partly from Guillaume Deffontaines’ observational photography, lingering on faces, on the hardness of stone, the drabness of interiors, the sun-baked starkness of the Vaucluse landscapes (you can almost smell the dry heat).

Then there’s Binoche’s extraordinary presence. She has shown us some awkward turns in recent years: ingratiatingly mercurial in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, farcically skittish in Malgorzata Szumowska’s hollow Elles. But she gives a monumental performance here, not least because it’s so contained. The moments of protest and anguish are all the more moving and painful because the Camille we mostly see is an observer, with impassive, barely changing features—gazing calmly ahead, or turning to the camera with an implacable, borderline-haughty look. With her dignified physical composure, her gaunt features lit by harsh daylight, suggesting the subtle ravages of torment on Camille’s face, it’s a very exposed performance, devastating in its simplicity, tiny facial nuances standing for profound surges of emotion.

Camille Claudel 1915 is a film of stark, sober rewards, and possibly Dumont’s finest. And it offers something new from him, apart from the fact that it’s his first outright feminist statement. His films often show something like distaste, even contempt for their characters, whose physicality and limited intelligence can appear as detached embodiments of the brutishness of the human condition. But in Hadewijch and Hors Satan, Dumont seemed to have opened up to solidarity and compassion, if not tenderness per se—yet that’s what he finally seems able to voice fully here. In this extraordinary film, Dumont has perhaps belatedly made his Humanity.