Friday, November 1, 2013


Minutes in to Camille Claudel, 1915 - Bruno Dumont's new film about the famous French sculptor's battle with depression & mental illness, we're made to feel uncomfortable & uneasy. The entire film takes place inside of an old asylum and instead of using trained actors to play the residence of the asylum (with the obvious exception of Juliette Binoche & Jean-Luc Vincent) Dumont uses actors with real physical or developmental disabilities. Just about every Bruno Dumont film is made up of non-professional actors but this was a little different. Camille Claudel was almost ruined by the audience I saw it with because they only knew how to express their discomfort towards the scenes that highlight the disabled actors by laughing. I'm still not quite sure what the audience was laughing at. So Bruno Dumont used a lot of continuous polarizing/hypnotic shots that lingered on the faces of the disabled co-stars. And? What exactly was so funny? I immediately felt that same discomfort from when I saw Manderlay in an audience full of laughter (again...not quite sure what was so hilarious with that movie either). Not that Manderlay is worthy of that much defense but still...I'm baffled why so many audience members were laughing at a film rooted in slavery. Bruno Dumont is a provocative (sometimes pretentious) filmmaker but I refuse to believe that part of his goal in making Camille Claudel, 1915 was to have us laugh at disabled people. I can’t believe that. What I can believe is that Dumont was trying to challenge audiences in some way but he took it a little too far without meaning to. Critics felt Bruno Dumont was being exploitative. I understand the need for authenticity in film (especially in a film that's based on a true story). Why hire actors who end up giving a poor & insulting performance as a person with physical or developmental disabilities? Remember how enraged you felt watching Adrien Brody in The Village or Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio? What's wrong with using an actor whose physically or developmentally disabled? Its been done before by filmmakers like; John Cassavetes (A Child Is Waiting), Harmony Korine (Gummo) & Crispin Glover (What Is It?) yet every time it happens, the subject of exploitation comes up (which is understandable in some cases).
Like any Bruno Dumont film, I'm conflicted. I enjoyed Camille Claudel, 1915 very very much but unfortunately I see where are a lot of critics are coming from when they accuse him of being exploitative. I don't agree with that at all but I kinda understand how someone could feel that way.
This film actually has me rethinking the early work of Harmony Korine now. I think part of the reason some audiences & critics are reacting the way they are to those scenes in Camille Claudel that highlight the cast members with disabilities is because of previous works like Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy and other various Korine shorts that some people may or may not have seen (I've been told he has a rare short where it's just him videotaping a girl with downs syndrome in a pool). Korine has since moved on from his style of the 90's. Dare I say he's matured as a filmmaker? But he may have burned a bridge for other filmmakers who may want to explore the subject of mental illness and other disabilities in art films. Nowadays, people cant take that subject matter straight on in the way Dumont presents it. There has to be some kind of artsy or ironic statement behind the presence of a disabled person in an art film.

In the case of using real disabled actors, Camille Claudel, 1915 falls somewhere in between the combination of audiences not being mature enough to deal with it and a director going too far by trying to fight a crusade - the misrepresentation of a group of people who are often overlooked. This film does take place in the early 1900's when the handling of folks with disabilities was pretty archaic & dated (I was reminded of Allan King's Warrendale during certain points). Maybe part of what Dumont was trying to do was shed light on how backwards the health system was in the early 1900's but he just took it a little too far.

Michael Pitt as "Blake" in Gus Van Sant's Last Days (L) / Kurt Cobain (R)

If I had to compare Camille Claudel, 1915 to a particular film in order to give you an idea of what it's like, I guess it's similar to Gus Van Sant's Last Days (I know it's not about Kurt Cobain, but it is about Kurt Cobain). Both films are slow, hypnotic, nature-heavy looks at depressed artists, with only a few brief scenes that highlight the art they create. Instead, the films focus more on the depression that's eating away at these artists. Last Days has a couple of scenes where Blake/Cobain retreats to his music studio to play something but for the most part we get scenes of our depressed main character roaming through the woods or wandering aimlessly through his mansion mumbling to himself. In Dumont's film, there's a few brief moments where Camille/Binoche talks about how she misses her art studio. There's even a scene where she picks up a piece of mud off the ground and tries to sculpt something out of it but eventually gives up (the way in which Camille Claudel breaks down in that scene and throws the mud away kinda reminded me of how Blake/Cobain intentionally brakes the strings off his guitar in the final music scene in Last Days). Camille Claudel, 1915 is a pretty realistic look at depression, how crippling it can be and how it can be triggered from the most unexpected things. Usually in a movie when someone goes in to a depressed mood, they see something obvious that reminds them of a dead relative or some past failure in life. True, these are legitimate reasons for someone to fall in to a depression but sometimes cinema would have you believe those are the only worthy reasons to be depressed. In one scene, Camille/Binoche watches a play rehearsal and as the scene goes on, she slowly breaks down and falls in to a depression. One minute she's smiling and the next minute she's having a crying fit. We later learn that the dialogue in the scene of the play that she was watching triggered memories of a failed relationship she once had. But we don't know that right away. Bruno Dumont wanted to show that depression can be triggered from the most unexpected places.

This is a very drab & depressing film from the subject matter right down to the atmosphere...

I don't know if I'm capable of writing about a modern French film (especially one by Bruno Dumont) without mentioning Robert Bresson's obvious influence. I guess it’s a testament to the fact that he's one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live. It goes without saying that most filmmakers are influenced by each other but in the case of modern European filmmakers like; Bertrand Bonello, Eugene Green, Miguel Gomes, Manuel De Oliviero and Bruno Dumont, the Bresson influence is so strong that you have to mention it. The dry tone and cinematography of Camille Claudel reminded me of a slightly more modern Diary Of Country Priest (with a touch of Maurice Pialat's Under The Sun Of Satan). The nuns who work at the asylum where Camille stays come right out of a Bresson film. 
Performance-wise, there isn’t much Bresson to be found this time around. Because of Dumont's use of non-professional actors, the performances in his films are usually dry, rough and scaled back. There's always the occasional outburst but for the most part, the characters in his films are monotone. But in Camille Claudel there's a lot of emotion in the performances of the actors. Binoche is great as is Jean-Luc Vincent who plays her brother; Paul Claudel. A separate film could have been made about Paul Claudel. There's a section in the film that focuses only on him and we don’t see Camille/Binoche for a good 10-15 minutes. We learn that Paul is not only dangerously religious but he's just as unstable as his sister (he just knows how to hide his madness better). It's good that Bruno Dumont chose to use trained actors for the two main roles this time. He's usually able to get great performances out of people who have never acted in their life before (both lead actors in L'Humanite won best actor & actress at Cannes in 1999 and had no previous acting experience) but I'm pretty sure Dumont knew that an untrained person couldn’t handle the kind of emotions that were required to play Claudel. He still incorporates non-professional actors but only as supporting & background players. 
The last time Bruno Dumont used professional actors was a decade ago in Twenty-nine Palms which was indeed a train-wreck (but the kind of train wreck that should still be seen at least once or twice in your life). But Camille Claudel is nothing like Twenty-nine Palms. Bruno Dumont continues his fascination with isolation, loneliness, religion & characters giving their life to godThe one thing that makes Camille Claudel, 1915 stand out from the other films in his catalogue is that Dumont doesn't explore sex and/or violence this time.
It may take more than one viewing for this film's subtle brilliance to sink in. If you have that kind of patience (the movie is only 97 minutes) then I say give Camille Claudel, 1915 a chance (bear in mind that it's not only very depressing but pretty slow). If you aren't familiar with Bruno Dumont's work, I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction.

Jean- Luc Vincent in a creepily intense performance as Paul Claudel (L) / Camille Claudel Sculpting of Paul Claudel, 1905 (R)

In his own unique way, Bruno Dumont crafts his own Dancer In The Dark-style ending with Camille Claudel. For a moment he gives the audience a glimpse of hope then he quickly takes that it away and the film just ends. Its subtly powerful and a bit of a punch in the gut. Camille Claudel’s history is no secret. All you have to do is google her. Her time spent battling depression & mental illness is documented just as much as her time as a sculptor. But she also isn’t the most world renowned artist either so there’s a chance that audiences (especially American audiences) don’t know how the rest of her life played out (like me) which makes the ending that much more depressing because I had no clue she lived out the rest of her life in asylum.
You can never just simply like a Bruno Dumont film (refer to my write-ups on L'Humanite & Hors Satan). There's always a struggle or some frustration. I'm a fan of his but there's a few films of his that even I don't like (Flanders & Hadewijch). But that's what I love about him. I'm becoming bored with (new) cinema more & more these days. Slightly pretentious or not, Dumont's work is still challenging and often leaves me intrigued, pleasantly confused & wanting to talk. Carlos Reygadas & Claire Denis are the only other filmmakers to consistently get those types of reactions out of me (maybe Apichatpong Weerasethakul but that's it). The only other film this year I found to be as thought provoking as Camille Claudel, 1915 was Hors Satan (also directed by Dumont, but not released in the U.S. until  this year) which makes Bruno Dumont the most intriguing and most frustrating filmmaker of 2013 in my opinion.


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