The sad life and stunted dreams of French sculptor Camille Claudel are the stuff of feminist parable. In 1884, as a 19-year-old student, she joined the staff of Auguste Rodin, helping to execute some of his larger works, and eventually became his muse, model, and lover; when she began to develop as an artist in her own right, their work grew intertwined, but she could never establish her own reputation and the romance soured. Claudel enjoyed some professional success on her own but her past with Rodin overshadowed everything else, and when she began to go mad in her early 40s, her chief delusion was that the famous sculptor wanted to poison her and steal her work. Her life has inspired books, plays, a musical, a ballet, and two dramatic films—the most recent of which, by French director Bruno Dumont, stars Juliette Binoche as the troubled woman, three years after her family committed her to an asylum.
Still beautiful at 49, Binoche has the sort of delicate features that might compel a sculptor, and she gives an extraordinary performance in a role of near-complete suffering. There are other examples of the female form on display as well, but they may give you nightmares: Dumont has cast real mental patients as the inmates of the Montdevergues Asylum near Avignon, and there are punishing long takes of these poor child-women as they gibber and rant. I’ve read plenty of online references to the “controversy” surrounding this, but I haven’t found anyone actually complaining about it, so any controversy may be wishful thinking on the publicists’ part. There’s nothing exploitative in giving an ill person some activity that will probably raise her self-esteem; on the other hand, these loud, senseless women are the movie’s definition of hell on earth: “They cry out, they bawl, they snivel, they laugh,” Camille weeps into the shoulder of her brother Paul when he comes to visit her. “It’s unbearable. A sort of creature that even their parents can’t stand. Why am I here?”
Born four years after Camille, Paul Claudel wrote verse plays and worked in the French diplomatic corps; when their father died in 1913, he moved quickly to have his sister committed. In a startling narrative shift, Dumont abandons Camille to her braying companions after about an hour and takes up with Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), a fiercely devout Catholic first seen praying passionately on a hilltop before dawn: “You are the given word, studded with iron nails, the title in which I place my hope.” Dumont introduces Paul in scenes of natural splendor and quiet peace; a similar mood infuses scenes of the mental patients being led through the hilly countryside by nuns. Yet the real question posed is whether Paul decided to make his unfortunate sister a partner in his devotion by subjecting her, for her last 30 years, to a life studded with iron nails.