La Valse/The Waltz (Camille Claudel, 1893)
CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915 B
France (95 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Bruno Dumont
France (95 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Bruno Dumont
There is always something missing that torments me.
Madhouses are houses made on purpose to cause suffering…I cannot stand any longer the screams of these creatures.
—Camille Claudel in letters to her brother Paul
Another realistically severe Bruno Dumont film that seems designed to inflict as much misery and punishment on the audience as is humanly possible, an arthouse trend that is happening all too frequently these days, as if forcing the viewer to experience such extreme degree of discomfort is somehow a doorway into artistic perception, as if the rigors of sadistic horror from Pasolini’s SALÒ, OR 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975) or Michael Haneke’s punishing Funny Games (1997) have somehow been unleashed upon the industry, and what was once considered rare and extreme is now more commonly accepted. Violence has made its inroads into the human psyche to the point where no one blinks anymore at human torture. While no one is accusing these uncompromising artists of exploitation, but Dumont joins a growing field of highly acclaimed directors, like Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe) (2012, 2013), or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), who are perfectly willing to unsettle and extinguish any comfort zone with the audience, where if the expression is slavery, humiliation, or human torment, by God that’s what they will make the audience feel. Perhaps it’s this insistence that the director must inflict trauma into the lives of the audience that comes into question, as art has the unique capacity to get “inside” a subject and explore internally without making the audience personally experience subjects like war, for instance, or suicide, incest, or murder, but instead poetically explore the subject through psychological implications. One of the very best war movies ever made is Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye) (1976), which powerfully examines the unending dread, fear, and madness associated with the conditions of war without accentuating the graphic nature of battle scenes, where the audience is lured into this dizzyingly intense psychological state of mind without forcing the audience to endure spilled guts and mutilated bodies. Nowhere in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, perhaps his darkest tragedy, are we placed on the front lines, as the human drama takes place almost entirely behind the protected walls of a castle under assault—the point being, we don’t remember the blood of the battlefield afterwards, but are instead riveted by the human torment. Somewhere along the line modernism has become associated with emotionally browbeating audiences, forcing them to capitulate to the director’s terms of emotional assault. Thankfully, freedom of choice still offers us the capacity to say no to these rules of engagement.
Dumont is perhaps the closest practitioner to the Bressonian school of cinema, a formalist whose minimalist structure reflects an economy of means, known for reducing film to its bare essence, something of a perfectionist in filmmaking, where questions of faith constantly arise throughout his body of work, and this is no exception. Up until this film, Dumont never used a name actor before, preferring to use unknowns, as his films are more about ideas and concepts and not about performances, a view shared by Bresson, where instead their artistic greatness relies upon the meticulous construction of their work, paying great attention to detail, where the viewers begin to identify with the world as the characters do, literally transporting the audience to a different time and place, where it becomes immediately recognizable and familiar, effectively using silences and long, observational gazes. Veering away from the animalistic brutality of his earlier work, this is a thoroughly undramatic historical drama based on actual events, drawing upon the life of Camille Claudel through letters and medical records, much as Bresson relied upon actual historical trial records in The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d'Arc) (1961), yet where Bresson’s Joan remains impassive and overly detached, Dumont uses perhaps the most internationally acclaimed and highly expressive French actress Juliette Binoche in the role of Camille, where in keeping with Dumont’s portrayal of realism, he has chosen an artist to reflect the life of another artist. While Dumont doesn’t concern himself with the backstory, Camille was 19 in 1883 when she became a student of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, 24-years her senior, which developed into a passionate but stormy love affair where she inspired Rodin as a model for many of his works while also assisting him, as the two artists mutually influenced one another. Rodin also had another longterm mistress, Rose Beuret, the mother of his son, and despite Camille’s pleas, Rodin refused to leave the stability of his family, so Camille left him in 1893 after a 10-year symbiosis of art and romance, continuing to communicate for another five years before a final break up, moving into her own studio and working feverishly, exhibiting her works at recognized art galleries. Camille’s mental outlook, on the other hand, deteriorated, suffering from paranoid delusions, developing a persecution complex where she believed that Rodin and his supporters were plotting against her, becoming obsessed by the injustice of her mistreatment, suddenly finding herself alienated from the inner circle of artists, with Rodin taking credit for her works, she felt betrayed and persecuted by Rodin until her dying day, believing she was exploited as a woman.
While she lived in a filthy art studio with her cats, broken sculptures, and her shutters sealed from the light, Camille remained critical of Rodin even as his fame and public prominence grew, believing Rodin wanted her voice silenced and was trying to poison her. Her family, on the other hand, found her behavior intolerable, believing her “scandalous” actions only undermined the family’s reputation and good name, and just three days after her father died in 1913, the man who largely supported her and was her biggest defender, the family placed her in an asylum, where the perception is she was literally driven insane by the prejudice and discrimination of a male-dominated art world that was incapable of accepting a woman’s talent as equal to a man’s, where like so many other neglected women artists she was perceived as threatening. Even today she is largely considered to be the most gifted female sculptor that ever lived, yet her accomplishments remain overshadowed by her infamous relationship with Rodin, who went on to fame and glory afterwards, apparently at her expense. While this background history is a footnote, it is not included in the film which opens two years later in 1915 with Camille inside the Montdevergues Asylum, a Catholic run mental institution with Dumont using actual caretakers and mental patients from Saint Paul de Mausole, the institution in the south of France where Vincent Van Gogh stayed for a year in 1889 creating numerous works of art, where a similar device was utilized decades earlier by John Cassavetes in A Child Is Waiting (1963), which includes handicapped children from the Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California, one of the first State facilities for mentally impaired children. In both films, professional actors are seamlessly integrated into an actual hospital setting. The audience is immediately pulled into the noise and incoherence of the sounds of an inexplicable madness, where Binoche sits silently and plays uncomfortably off other patients. Dumont creates an impressionist, near wordless work where sound alone is so oppressive that one instantly senses a need for relief, yet Camille is stuck in the suffocating atmosphere of endless rooms with no relief, made worse by being unheated, so one can only imagine the cold in these massive rooms where humans tend to get lost in the enormity of the empty space where time can only linger, becoming a matter of little consequence, as no one is “living” a life here, but instead exists in a state of mental paralysis. The only way to survive in this madness is to lose one’s humanity, as you can’t allow yourself to feel the forcible oppression without being reduced to tears. Powerlessness is everywhere, as patients can’t control their disturbing behavior, where one can’t help but be affected by it, as in this setting there is no place to escape from the surrounding madness.
Much of the first half of the film simply captures the rhythm of the daily life, where despite having the freedom to walk the grounds as she pleases, the interactions with others are mostly unpleasant, and the overwhelming feeling of boredom and endless confinement pervades every moment. Camille, while profoundly unhappy, is not as seriously disturbed as the others and is often asked to look after some of the other patients, while it’s obvious she seeks solitary quiet and reflection every moment she can, simply overwhelmed by the unending noise and the horrifying effects of being stuck there. When it’s announced that her brother Paul will be visiting in two days, it’s the first time we see her smile, where it gives her something to look forward to, changing the focus, as for her this moment offers a glimmer a hope. Through the incessant unpleasantness of her confined life, it’s quite clear how important this opportunity is and Camille looks forward to being released, something even the doctors are recommending. When we are introduced to Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), a Christian poet, playwright, and diplomat, the point of view shifts, no longer seen through Camille’s eyes, but through diary entries and a few lengthy monologues about Christianity from the brother, an ardent believer whose beliefs border on mysticism. While his presence is altogether bizarre, seen having dumfounding conversations alone in a room, as if conversing with his own soul, casting a dark shadow across an already dour picture, this inner narration is difficult to stomach because of the sheer fanaticism it exhibits, where the viewer is likely to be put off by the otherworldy tone of his outbursts, yet he is the rational member of the family, and the only one the family allows to have any contact with Camille. But once he gets into a room with his sister, where the viewer is highly sensitized to the ramifications, Camille literally pleads for her life, but faraway brother Paul is unmoved and undaunted, convinced more than ever that her Godless sins have not yet found the light, that she still needs to accept God in all his crooked wisdom, not always easily ascertainable, even as she questions His existence anywhere on the premises, as what kind of God would allow people to suffer so? It’s a cruel fate, made even crueler by the devout Christian rationale of her brother who insists she still needs time to get well, and exits unceremoniously, where imprisoning his sister is his way of saving her, reflective of the tortuous struggle for women to find a voice and a place in art history. Twenty years later she would write, “I live in a world that is so curious, so strange. Of the dream which was my life, this is the nightmare,” where Dumont’s portrait of doom expresses the reality of that nightmare in just three days. Camille would spend the rest of her life (nearly 30 years) in that asylum, dying of malnutrition at age 79 during the height of WWII, where her family refused to retrieve her body, eventually buried in a communal grave.