Deceived and delusional.
She seems to be in the wrong place. She lives in an institution for people with severe mental and cognitive disabilities, but she looks to be competent and lucid. The nuns who work at the facility even give her special privileges. She cooks her own meals and dines alone. Sometimes she helps out with other patients.
She is Camille Claudel (1864-1943), the French sculptor, and she is played by Juliette Binoche in the challenging drama Camille Claudel 1915. Writer and director Bruno Dumont based the film on medical records and the writings of Camille and her brother Paul Claudel, the poet and diplomat. As a young woman, Camille worked in the studio of Auguste Rodin, with whom she had a tumultuous romance. She spent her final 30 years in an asylum.
Camille doesn't want to be institutionalized. She believes her confinement is a mistake, an injustice. She says so in a meeting with her doctor, and the claim appears to be reasonable. Then she says more. She says men came to her studio and stole her works. She says they did so at Rodin's bidding. She continues at some length in this paranoid vein. The doctor gently reminds her that her association with Rodin ended 20 years earlier.
It's a troubling speech, and Binoche captures something subtle with it. It's not precisely clear at what point she crosses over from clarity to hallucination. What's the old saying? "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me." Camille is indeed being wronged, but she also is delusional.
The institution is an unsettling place, a complex of drab buildings and walkways. Controversially, Dumont cast people with cognitive disabilities to play Camille's fellow patients. This can make for uncomfortable watching, because some scenes verge on exploitative. But there's no denying the effectiveness of these performances, as when a character named Mademoiselle Lucas (Alexandra Lucas) comfortingly touches Camille's shoulder. Camille Claudel 1915 shares some cinematic DNA with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, another film about a mental institution and a patient who is there for the wrong reasons.
The film takes place over three days, and there are sequences in which not much happens and not much is said. At these moments, Camille simply watches and waits. Likewise, we simply watch her, and let me say: Simply watching Binoche on a movie screen is an excellent way to pass the time. Sometimes Camille erupts in anger. In the garden, she picks up some clay and begins to shape it, and then she throws it down in frustration. I like this tense performance by Binoche, who honors her character by not lapsing into mawkishness.
Midway through, Dumont introduces the other major character, Camille's brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), who visits her in the institution. A devout Catholic, he is first seen kneeling in prayer. Later, in a long speech, he tells a priest about his dramatic conversion to Christianity. It's one of several monologues in the latter half of the film, which begins to take on a stagy quality.
When Camille and Paul meet at the institution, she spins another fantasy about Rodin, and he talks at length about his faith. They're not listening to each other, and that dynamic will be recognizable to anyone who ever had a sibling.