Bruno Dumont talks about Camille Claudel 1915 | Interviews

October 3rd, 2014
Author: Meredith Taylor

Camille_Claudel_-_003 copyIn his latest feature Camille Claudel 1915, French auteur Bruno Dumont has remained faithful to his somewhat sincere, morbid take on humanity. In this instance we’re delving into the life of Camille Claudel – portrayed by Juliette Binoche – in her later years, when confined to a mental institution following the nervous breakdown that came as a result of her affair with Auguste Rodin. Dumont discusses his influences, how cautious he had to be when handling such a subject matter, the prevalence of patriarchal injustice in the film, and what attracts him to creating such unforgiving, often bleak feature films.

Was the story of Camille Claudel one you knew much about prior to getting involved in this project?

It’s actually quite a well known story in France, she was a famous artist with this tragic destiny, ending up in a mental hospital. So yes, I knew about it before.

This isn’t the first film about Camille Claudel, with the 1980s take, starring Gérard Depardieu. Did you use that at all to inspire you – specifically in relation to Camille’s history with Rodin?

Yes, and because that film had been made, I didn’t need to cover that again, that aspect had been made into a film already. So I decided the next part of the story, which is far more obscure. Also, that moment in Camille’s life suits Juliette much better given her age.

Was delving in to a more obscure time in Camille’s life, allow you more artistic licence?

Yes, exactly. It’s more interesting because it’s more obscure and to study the psychiatry of an artist is very interesting to me.

With close-up shots of Juliette’s face, it reminded me of The Passion of Joan of Arc – was that an influence on this title?

Yes, and there is a relationship between the two women, because in a way they both burn. They’re both prisoners.

Another potential influence I could see is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – especially in how our protagonist seemed to think that, in her mind, she was perhaps above everybody else there, and yet was unhinged herself. 

Yeah, well the Claudel family are quite odd and very sure of their own genius. They have this superiority and are fully aware of their own genius. It makes them quite annoying, but that’s how they are. But yes, she was unhinged, it’s not a question of whether she is mad or not, it’s the length of time that she spent in there which is terrible. The problem is her brother’s influence in keeping her imprisoned. You have the scene with the doctor saying she’s much better and that she’s calmer and that she can be taken out. But the brother doesn’t. That’s the tension.

When treading on territory such as this, studying mental illness – how cautious do you have to be in order to remain sensitive to the subject matter?

I couldn’t imagine making actors play mad, so I had to be truthful by showing people who are genuinely mentally ill. So I was forced into that decision. Above all, Camille Claudel is writing about how hard it is to live with these women in her letters. So the whole mission of the film was to have this environment like that, with real patients. So I managed to find a psychiatrist who understood the therapeutic value of them being in the film, but you do need somebody to give you authorisation, so I had medical authorisation to do a casting in the hospital. Some people didn’t want to be in it, and some parents didn’t want their children to be in, so I just took people who did want to be in it.

In regards to Camille’s interaction with some of the other patients, we see quite a ruthless, callous side to her. Was it important for you to portray her flaws, to help us understand the character even more?

Yes, she was a hard, tough woman. She has this superiority about her, and she would treat everybody there like a lesser being – including her brother, who she calls ‘Little Paul’. She is pretty arrogant.

Was it ever a challenge to maintain that level of empathy, and yet show her for all of her imperfections?

I wasn’t judging her, I was taking as much as I could from the letters, which is as close as I could get to who the character was, and her relationships with other people. So I wasn’t trying to impose my own judgement on a historic character, you know, they are who they are. It’s the same for Paul, it’s easy to make him unlikeable – but I like him [laughs]. But he’s not a hero. He was a great writer, but he was also a coward. Like a lot of people. We’re all like that in some ways, and that’s the interesting part.

The film is very difficult to watch at times, and can be bleak and unforgiving. Do you get gratification from provoking such an emotional response from the viewer?

The film is difficult to watch because it’s difficult to look at mental illness. The film also takes you on a journey of love, by the end you love these women. In the end you find light. Camille is smiling by the end. In this journey, there is something that comes out that is a positive, in a way. The audience member, when they come out, can be happy, somehow. It’s a difficult journey, but can be a happy one.

This is not the first film of yours to tackle such severe themes – what attracts you to explore the darker, more dramatic side of life as a filmmaker?

In human beings there is lightness, darkness, happiness… I’m just occupied by the heavier side. You have to treat the serious side seriously, and the lighter side lightly. When you read Shakespeare, it’s not necessarily all funny, but in Shakespeare it is beautifully written, and in tragedy there is beauty. There is beauty in tragedy.

Back to Camille Claudel – how prevalent is the theme of patriarchal injustice?

Absolutely vital. It’s absolutely about that – at the beginning on the 20th century when women hadn’t been emancipated. She was ahead of her time, she was the light at the beginning of this century, but it was absolutely torturous, and she was rejected by all the people around her, even her family. It was very torturous. Especially Rodin, who abandoned her. For Rodin, she was a rival that really pissed him off, so she’s emblematic of women’s liberation. Poor Claudel is a kind of masochist, but also representative of his epoch.

At the heart of this tale, is an artist being denied her creativity. As an artist yourself, were you able to relate to the character and put yourself in her shoes, and wonder how you would react in this situation?

Yes, I was filming somebody who is forbidden life, forbidden creativity, forbidden freedom, and yes it’s touching. You touch a contemporary issue of alienation as well.

In regards to the look of the film, it’s a very beautiful aesthetic, creating a very serene atmosphere. Did you enjoying playing on the way that contradicts the inner turmoil?

It’s only through cinema that you can have, through these grimacing faces, the ability to show the beauty behind them. So the directing of the film has to be dignified, in order to show the women’s dignity as well.

In his latest feature Camille Claudel 1915, French auteur Bruno Dumont has remained faithful to his somewhat sincere, morbid take on humanity. In this instance we’re delving into the life of Camille Claudel – portrayed by Juliette Binoche – in her later years, when confined to a mental institution following the nervous breakdown that came as a result of her affair with Auguste Rodin. Dumont discusses his influences, how cautious he had to be when handling such a subject matter, the prevalence of patriarchal injustice in the film, and what attracts him to creating such unforgiving, often bleak feature films.

Was the story of Camille Claudel one you knew much about prior to getting involved in this project?

It’s actually quite a well known story in France, she was a famous artist with this tragic destiny, ending up in a mental hospital. So yes, I knew about it before.

This isn’t the first film about Camille Claudel, with the 1980s take, starring Gérard Depardieu. Did you use that at all to inspire you – specifically in relation to Camille’s history with Rodin?

Yes, and because that film had been made, I didn’t need to cover that again, that aspect had been made into a film already. So I decided the next part of the story, which is far more obscure. Also, that moment in Camille’s life suits Juliette much better given her age.

Was delving in to a more obscure time in Camille’s life, allow you more artistic licence?

Yes, exactly. It’s more interesting because it’s more obscure and to study the psychiatry of an artist is very interesting to me.

With close-up shots of Juliette’s face, it reminded me of The Passion of Joan of Arc – was that an influence on this title?

Yes, and there is a relationship between the two women, because in a way they both burn. They’re both prisoners.

Another potential influence I could see is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – especially in how our protagonist seemed to think that, in her mind, she was perhaps above everybody else there, and yet was unhinged herself. 

Yeah, well the Claudel family are quite odd and very sure of their own genius. They have this superiority and are fully aware of their own genius. It makes them quite annoying, but that’s how they are. But yes, she was unhinged, it’s not a question of whether she is mad or not, it’s the length of time that she spent in there which is terrible. The problem is her brother’s influence in keeping her imprisoned. You have the scene with the doctor saying she’s much better and that she’s calmer and that she can be taken out. But the brother doesn’t. That’s the tension.

When treading on territory such as this, studying mental illness – how cautious do you have to be in order to remain sensitive to the subject matter?

I couldn’t imagine making actors play mad, so I had to be truthful by showing people who are genuinely mentally ill. So I was forced into that decision. Above all, Camille Claudel is writing about how hard it is to live with these women in her letters. So the whole mission of the film was to have this environment like that, with real patients. So I managed to find a psychiatrist who understood the therapeutic value of them being in the film, but you do need somebody to give you authorisation, so I had medical authorisation to do a casting in the hospital. Some people didn’t want to be in it, and some parents didn’t want their children to be in, so I just took people who did want to be in it.

In regards to Camille’s interaction with some of the other patients, we see quite a ruthless, callous side to her. Was it important for you to portray her flaws, to help us understand the character even more?

Yes, she was a hard, tough woman. She has this superiority about her, and she would treat everybody there like a lesser being – including her brother, who she calls ‘Little Paul’. She is pretty arrogant.

Was it ever a challenge to maintain that level of empathy, and yet show her for all of her imperfections?

I wasn’t judging her, I was taking as much as I could from the letters, which is as close as I could get to who the character was, and her relationships with other people. So I wasn’t trying to impose my own judgement on a historic character, you know, they are who they are. It’s the same for Paul, it’s easy to make him unlikeable – but I like him [laughs]. But he’s not a hero. He was a great writer, but he was also a coward. Like a lot of people. We’re all like that in some ways, and that’s the interesting part.

The film is very difficult to watch at times, and can be bleak and unforgiving. Do you get gratification from provoking such an emotional response from the viewer?

The film is difficult to watch because it’s difficult to look at mental illness. The film also takes you on a journey of love, by the end you love these women. In the end you find light. Camille is smiling by the end. In this journey, there is something that comes out that is a positive, in a way. The audience member, when they come out, can be happy, somehow. It’s a difficult journey, but can be a happy one.

This is not the first film of yours to tackle such severe themes – what attracts you to explore the darker, more dramatic side of life as a filmmaker?

In human beings there is lightness, darkness, happiness… I’m just occupied by the heavier side. You have to treat the serious side seriously, and the lighter side lightly. When you read Shakespeare, it’s not necessarily all funny, but in Shakespeare it is beautifully written, and in tragedy there is beauty. There is beauty in tragedy.

Back to Camille Claudel – how prevalent is the theme of patriarchal injustice?

Absolutely vital. It’s absolutely about that – at the beginning on the 20th century when women hadn’t been emancipated. She was ahead of her time, she was the light at the beginning of this century, but it was absolutely torturous, and she was rejected by all the people around her, even her family. It was very torturous. Especially Rodin, who abandoned her. For Rodin, she was a rival that really pissed him off, so she’s emblematic of women’s liberation. Poor Claudel is a kind of masochist, but also representative of his epoch.

At the heart of this tale, is an artist being denied her creativity. As an artist yourself, were you able to relate to the character and put yourself in her shoes, and wonder how you would react in this situation?

Yes, I was filming somebody who is forbidden life, forbidden creativity, forbidden freedom, and yes it’s touching. You touch a contemporary issue of alienation as well.

In regards to the look of the film, it’s a very beautiful aesthetic, creating a very serene atmosphere. Did you enjoying playing on the way that contradicts the inner turmoil?

It’s only through cinema that you can have, through these grimacing faces, the ability to show the beauty behind them. So the directing of the film has to be dignified, in order to show the women’s dignity as well. STEFAN PAPE

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