“Camille Claudel 1915”: They tell you how to behave, behave as their guest

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“Camille Claudel 1915” has its only Madison screening at 7 p.m. Friday at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Not rated, 1:37, three stars out of four.

At some point during the making of “Camille Claudel 1915,” writer-director Bruno Dumont surely must have considered featuring Juliette Binoche’s face in extreme close-up for the film’s entire running time. It’s a marvelously expressive, endlessly watchable face, and in the film’s many close-ups Binoche takes us from burning rage to crushing sadness to irrational joy. “Camille Claudel 1915” seems to be that rare film where there seems to be less happening on screen the more people we see.

Binoche plays Claudel, the protege and lover of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin and an artist in her own right. The year is 1915, and Claudel has been locked up in a church-run asylum in the south of France. She doesn’t seem like she belongs there – while the other patients (many of them real patients, and not actors)  gibber and giggle, Claudel is poised, still, behaved. The nuns seem to know she’s different than the others, allowing her privileges the other charges don’t get.

At first, it’s utterly plausible that she was incarcerated against her will for other reasons — that she had become a liability to Rodin, and he had his well-connected associates lock her away. Early on, I believed in Claudel, and the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s “Wallflower,” a song about a political prisoner, were running through my head: “They put you in a box so you can’t get heard/
Let your spirit stay unbroken, may you not be deterred.”

But the more she talks, the more we wonder, as she fears that even now Rodin or his confederates are plotting to poison her while she’s in an asylum. A sister gently reminds her that she’s been locked away for 20 years.

So she’s delusional, right? But then again, what would 20 years of being wrongly imprisoned in an insane asylum do for a healthy brain? Living in an eternal present, unable to do more than eat and sleep, why would the passage of 20 years mean anything to her. Dumont keeps us guessing as to Claudel’s mental state, whether she belongs in this prison or whether she doesn’t, or whether she didn’t initially but, having been put there, now does.

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About halfway through the film we meet another major character, Camille’s brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), a devout Christian and mystic poet. Paul excitedly tells the local priest of how he can feel God’s pleasure. What is the difference between Paul’s fervor and Camille’s paranoia? The only difference, Dumont seems to suggest, is society’s acceptance of one and not the other.

“Camille Claude 1915” features a lot of long, quiet takes, of Claudel’s daily routines and her haunted visage. The plodding, repetitive scenes feel stifling, confining, but of course that’s precisely what we’re meant to feel. Whether she gets released I will leave for the movie to reveal; whether the damage has already been done to her mind is left for the audience to contemplate.

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