As in his enigmatic 2011 parable “Outside Satan,” writer/director Bruno Dumont seeks beatitude in the midst of despondency, injustice, and derangement. The life of Camille Claudel (portrayed here with punishing conviction by Juliette Binoche) provides him with rich material. A brilliant sculptor and a believer in art as a secular religion, Claudel engaged in a lengthy and doomed collaboration and affair with Rodin that inspired both artists. They split up, and doctors diagnosed her grief and fury as madness. At the request of her family, she was committed in 1914 to Montdevergues Asylum, a victim of a sexist, philistine bourgeoisie.
The early years of psychotherapy have inspired a few films recently, including David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” (2011) and Alice Winocour’s “Augustine” (2013). Like them, “Camille Claudel 1915” points out the sexism of these psychiatric pioneers. But Dumont does not focus on gender power politics and presents Camille’s plight in medias res, with minimal context, the back story filled in by the dialogue and voice-overs of characters, drawn from actual diaries, correspondence, and medical records, sources of varying degrees of reliability.
One of these sources is Camille’s brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), whose ardent Catholicism challenges Camille’s faith in art, and who now is in a position to determine her fate. As he relates in a conversation with a blankly smiling prelate, Paul found God in the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. Transferring the ecstatic visions of the poet to his faith, he combines decadence and zealotry, worshiping a God who is the supreme derangement of the senses. But though his face twitches with incipient ecstasy, he dresses like a banker, and his message to his sister consists of hypocritical pieties.
Dumont shoots the film at an actual asylum, a gothic pile he captures in long takes, with a palette consisting mostly of flat, subtle grays reminiscent of Giorgio Morandi’s paintings of bottles. His casting of real-life, severely disabled patients and their attendant staff members at first can be seen as gimmicky and even exploitative. The afflicted, almost all women, seem to taunt the long-suffering Camille with their distorted grimaces and demonic shrieks. They appear to be hellish furies mocking her for pretending that she is not, as in Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932), “one of us.”
Claudel responds with revulsion and rage, fleeing their attentions, wandering the cold stone paths and barren garden of the asylum, sustained by the hope that her brother will come and rescue her. But at times their common humanity shines forth with heartbreaking pathos, such as when one of the patients compassionately touches a weeping Camille. When the gesture is furiously rejected, the patient’s shock and pain reveals her damaged humanity.
But Dumont doesn’t push that connection any further. He won’t have any sentimental bonding between Camille and her fellow inmates. Nor does he settle for a pat feminist conclusion, blaming Rodin for Camille’s troubles (for that, check out Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 “Camille Claudel” with Isabelle Adjani), or condemning Paul for his patriarchal arrogance. Instead he treats this as a spiritual conflict, a clash between two visions of transcendence, with Camille the loser — a testier version of Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. As always with Dumont, there is no black and white resolution, only shades of gray.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.