I’ve been enthused about Bruno Dumont’s films since beginning my study of contemporary cinema. While I appreciate his films up to and including Flanders (2006), his films after 2006 seem to have fallen a little short of his aesthetic goals, or, a hint at some work to be done in the future, he has been too concerned about the competition between himself and Carlos Reygadas (a real competition or something I’ve alone noticed). Dumont and Reygadas share the same stylistic and thematic interests: long takes, long scenes, tableau rather than cause and effect plot, non-professional actors who resemble Bressonian models, an emphasis on the look/personage of the performer (Eisenstein perhaps), sparse dialogue, lack of psychological depth, unclear temporal frame, madness and violence, ambiguous sexual encounters (shot explicitly), religiosity (monotheism), religiosity and interpersonal relationships, religiosity and community, and miracles, to name a few.
Dumont’s first four features had less to do with religiosity than his most recent three which are explicitly religious or transcendentalist in tone, plot, and story. This is despite his professed atheism. Reygadas, a self-proclaimed Catholic, has followed the same trend: his first two features secular or atheistic – Battle of Heaven (2005) merely had the backdrop of Catholicism but was not its focus – and his two latest films overly transcendentalist (in Schrader’s sense). Silent Light (2007, an homage to C.T. Dreyer’s Ordet ) ends with a miracle and Post Tenebras Lux (2012) begins with Satan or a satanic creature.
Dumont says that cinema is the perfect medium for spirituality, “its tendency to cut to the core and reveal to us the very substance of beings and objects” (Cineaste, Fall 2013). He goes on to say that the foundation of religion is in fact art, and “future art will replace religions and their institutions.” In his statement there appears a drive to move beyond the religious, yet, he cannot seem to wrench himself free of it. I suggest that Dumont’s inability to get out of religion is, as he says, because of cinema’s “fairly extraordinary ability to transfigure [reality]” on the one hand, and on the other, the generic conventions of the contemporary art film.
Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) is the most ambiguously spiritual of Dumont’s recent films. It is devoid of story, although contains some plot or events. We have Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche), the sculptress/artist, in 1915. At this time in her life she was a patient, held perhaps against her will, in an institution for the mentally unstable. We are informed early on that her brother Paul will pay his first ever visit on Saturday. She anticipates his visit. An hour into the feature we are introduced to a very spiritual Paul. He makes his way to Camille; they have an exchange. Paul then exchanges spiritual words with a priest or priest-figure who works at the institution. The film ends in medium close-up on Binoche.
In the art film I identified the lack of an investigation into characters’ psychology as an essential feature. Given this trait of art cinema, is there a better person and set of characters to depict than those in a mental health institution?
First, the patients around Claudel. Their motivation and relationship to Claudel is, as expected, ambiguous. Claudel is occasionally asked by nurses to care for some patients momentarily and is treated by doctors and nurses as if she is not as physically, emotionally, psychologically unstable as the others. The “real” patients are there to contrast Claudel’s position as one in which she should perhaps not be there. In the doctors’ and nurses’ recognition of Claudel’s condition, the relationship between her and the employees is not further developed, and therefore ambiguous. An old and seemingly uninterested psychologist challenges her on some angry remarks about Rodin, but no further evidence of her psychological instability is really addressed.
Seen from a different angle, the other patients take on a meaning of their own. In the first cafeteria scene, three women are eating their meals. Their words indecipherable, their banging on the table and playing with food providing a real sense of improvisation or authenticity. These characters, or perhaps persons, look as if they really belong there. Another component of the art film genre I have not yet mentioned is its capacity for producing the real – not realism as a style, but confronting spectators with the real, a reality. In this case, perhaps these individuals require care by healthcare professionals. The whole scene had the feeling of an Ulrich Seidl feature, or the direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and Allan King.
Towards the end of the film, Camille’s closest patient (friend?) informs her that Paul has arrived. Dumont lingers in a close-up of this patient, here, I think, like someone informing the wise men of Jesus’s birth in year zero – she is a messenger of the good/Good/God. This woman has the same look of transcendence as David Dewaele at the end of Hadewijch (2009) and during the miracles of Hors Satan (2011). Something “more” (deeper meaning) lurks behind their acts, thus the lingering close-ups, but less intensely in Camille.
Second, the character Claudel. For Dumont, this is the first use of a well-known professional actor, or in better words, the first use of a star. (Twentynine Palms  featured professional actors, but they were not stars.) Dumont chose Binoche because Claudel herself was a star, and the former also an artist. “To create by using an artist is like asking a peasant to play a peasant, a sailor to play a sailor. In short, it is my usual method. The chemistry is the same. Juliette Binoche is Camille Claudel: the character disappears and dissolves in the person of the actor” (Cineaste, Fall 2013). This statement by Dumont reminds me of King’s use of actors for his actuality drama A Married Couple (1969). There, a couple of actors are documented, filmed on the theme of their married life. Both are thoroughly performative to say the least. Returning to Camille, Dumont’s art cinema tactic of casting non-professional actors, as if their lives resembled the characters portrayed, is therefore maintained. Or so he had hoped.
But Binoche’s acting is far too professional. Her outbursts in tears at a production about Don Juan and her long speech against Rodin were so perfectly executed that the dynamic or authentic appeal of the non-professionals in previous Dumont films was lost. Yes, a strange criticism, but from the art cinema I’ve come to expect a certain authenticity through performance/inauthenticity (rather than an accurate portrayal of emotion through acting.) Binoche is a trained star and will remain as such.
She will be a star even as she gets older. I asked myself as she nakedly dipped into a bath: Is this really the Binoche I’ve seen in films past? Her very brief nudity at the beginning of Camille was a shock, and now I see that it was a shock that should have been expected. Binoche’s nudity was nevertheless as unannounced as Julie Delpy’s in Before Midnight (2013) and the extreme case of Emmanuelle Riva’s aged body in Amour (2012). In each of these films an aging star reveals herself to audiences, as if to challenge past audiences’ desire for the more youthful actress.
The main issue with Camille was its narrative, or lack thereof. The historical year of Claudel’s life, 1915, was to correspond to Binoche’s age. Thus a story is already secondary to the portrayal. But without some narrative component to frame Camille, the film turns into a kind of whodunit. Why is she instituted, what is her psychological issue? Christopher Sharrett sees the film as a blow against the men who treated Claudel unfairly; however, this reveals itself in one way only, i.e., in Binoche’s sorrowful speech to the doctor about Rodin. Yes, she was perhaps wronged by Rodin (I know nothing of Claudel and her story), yet the doctor notes this was 20 years ago, therefore brushing aside her complaints as (perhaps) part of her psychological issue. The “destruction of women by men” (Sharrett, Cineaste, Fall 2013) is nowhere apparent, clear, or represented. We would be much better with a Catherine Breillat film, or for the more Hollywood-keen spectators, Woody Allen’s fantastic feature Blue Jasmine (2013).
Camille appears instead as neither spiritual or transcendentalist, as with characters in Dumont’s prior films, nor do we have here a satire or mockery of Christianity and its believers as in Seidl’s successful Paradise: Faith (2012). Hadewijch and Hors Satan are serious about its content, although without a specific message; these two films were able to investigate the relationship between religiosity and art film aesthetics – there was an honesty about the generic conventions of the art film genre, a sticking to its conventions then pushing their limits in stylistically interesting, and psychologically complex ways for the spectator.
Sharrett suggests there is always “something else” going on in a Dumont picture. This is what I meant by the deeper meaning of art cinema – art cinema (sometimes dis)honestly asks spectators to unravel or deconstruct the images and sounds, associating those hidden meanings with the intention or message of the auteur. This is the generic convention of art cinema and how spectators have critically received it, i.e., when they see something positive or productive in a film or oeuvre of course. (I do not touch upon the boredom, pretentiousness, or spiritually incomprehensibility some spectators would see in art cinema.) With Camille I can’t find what this something else is, despite Sharrett’s claim about the destruction of women by men. The film lacked substance, which is true for most of Dumont’s features; in his previous attempts to produce (bodily) sensations in the spectator, and not making narrative or psychological sense, his prior output maintained a beauty that was unique to art film genre. Camille is ultimately an unsuccessful film in Dumont’s oeuvre, devoid of story, content, spirituality, and style. Everything in this film is simply dull – Dumont parodying a Dumont film. Too much nothing, not enough sensation, and definitely no sense.