Poster artFrench director Bruno Dumont works in an elliptical manner. Though he consistently works with powerful visuals, his work requires an audience with an open mind and some patience. His latest, Camille Claudel, 1915, though somewhat based on true events, remains no exception. It stars Juliette Binoche as the titular sculptor turned committed psych patient. As noted by the year in the film’s title, the story focuses on her early years at an asylum in Montdevergues (she would die there, her body interred in a communal grave, in 1943).

She was placed at the psychiatric hospital against her will by her family. Her younger brother, the poet Paul Claudel, co-signed the papers. He was also the only person who would visit her. Often, years would go by between visits.

As Dumont is no ordinary filmmaker, Camille Claudel, 1915 is no ordinary biopic. The drama focuses on only three days. Early in the film, Camille receives word of one of Paul’s visits. She has high hopes he will agree to discharge her. In the meantime, she waits.

Left to languish, she often sits alone when she is not helping the nuns attend to other patients (all are played by actual nuns and real mental patients). She mostly suffers quietly between manic periods of elation at the impending visit and tearful fits of sadness over her abandonment. There are also outbursts of frustration and moments when she finds some reserve to offer care to the other patients. It all speaks to her strength as a powerful woman trapped in the wrong time.


Binoche does far more than emote. The script, credited to Dumont, is mostly based on improvisation after Binoche studied Camille’s letters. She brings intensity to a few standout monologue sequences, which Dumont treats with the utmost respect by not allowing for a single cut to break her performance. He has placed much trust in Binoche, and she delivers. As Paul, Jean-Luc Vincent also delivers, despite his lack of acting experience. Though he plays a seemingly composed, well-put-together man, an impressive question arises from his moments of speechifying. As he reveals an almost zealous devotion to God, one has to wonder who is more insane, the brother or sister?

Dumont never overtly presents this question. After all, his is the language of visuals and sounds, and he packs much baggage into his film through mostly extended scenes that sometimes feature no dialogue. As always, his shots are not only immaculately composed but loaded with meaning. His camera angles are occasionally askew, representing a world misaligned. Camille’s complexity is exposed as much with her actions as reflected by the mentally disabled around her. They stand as living, breathing fun house mirrors. As Mademoiselle Lucas laughs maniacally, her gaping mouth exposes a large hole in her front teeth. Camille stares back with a mix of curiosity and resilient reserve.

As with his other films, Dumont seems fascinated by asymmetrical faces. He even shoots Binoche at an angle that highlights a raised eyebrow and crooked lips, 607a visual appearance hardly emphasized in other films featuring the 49-year-old actress. Dumont allows the camera to sit on many faces, inviting contemplation, despite some uncomfortable scenes that highlight the grotesque appearance of the patients.

One of the film’s more multi-dimensional scenes features Camille sitting in a chair as sunlight bathes her through a curtain. Dumont carefully cuts to the carpet, a wall covered in ornate wallpaper, a fidgety, elderly patient on one side and a stiff, grinning woman on another. All the images feature some variation of sunlight and shadow. It’s an expressionistic scene that is as much about an internal representation as it is a staged moment. What these images and their sequence mean are given to the viewer to consider into the loose plotting of the film.

One cannot also fail to notice the significance of the landscape in the films of Dumont. Camille Claudel, 1915 is no exception. Dumont loves utilizing the wild brush of the landscape, and a day trip out to the top of a dusty hill with the wind blowing through the desolate land implies the artists’s lack. Early in the film, an enormous, dead tree in a courtyard greets Camille when she excuses herself to sit outside. Its gnarly, brittle branches reach toward a heaven that seems non-existent, as we all know there will be no redemption for poor Camille in her lifetime.


As with his previous film, Outside Satan (read my review: Bruno Dumont’s ode to the land ‘Outside Satan’ – a film review), Dumont stages much of his action outdoors. During Paul’s travels to visit his sister, he stops to speak with a priest. They walk among unkempt brush, as Paul speaks about his Catholic enlightenment. Meanwhile, the overwhelming nature crowds them onto a strict path. Dumont is a naturalist who often relies on the magic hour to light his scenes, and it’s clear he adores shooting the outdoors. Indoors, he’s all about symmetry, and when he shows Paul inside a cathedral it marks a breathtakingly beautiful moment. But, just as he loves crooked faces, Dumont seems to prefer the random quality of nature, and he harnesses it to evocative effect with an unparalleled ease.

Claudel’s love affair with Auguste Rodin was well-known, and his work overshadowed hers. References to the affair emerge in the film to heart-breaking effect that only further highlight this poor artist’s abandonment. During a brief therapy session with a doctor where Camille implores for her release, expressing her sense of betrayal by her family and Rodin, the doctor ends it by stating, “Your relationship with Rodin ended 20 years ago. We’ll see you in a week.”

Despite the film’s rather tragic tone, Dumont has intense sympathy for Camille. This is not some emotional torture porn flick, this is a humanist tale fueled by tragic affection for the titular subject. Throughout the film he celebrates Claudel as he suppresses her. She was a kinetic force whose creativity was cut short confined for too many years before a rather pathetic end. Covering only a brief period, Dumont pays intense respect to not only a singular artist but a creative energy squandered to man’s zealous determination to control. Camille Claudel, 1915 stands as a rather beautiful piece of mourning for the loss of creativity.

Hans Morgenstern

Camille Claudel, 1915 runs 95 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is unrated (expect some brief nudity and language). It opens exclusively in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Nov. 8, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A man’s rough fist lightly raps on a door in the dawn’s light. The wood door appears charcoal black and the wall framing it a brilliant dark blue in the expressionistic light. The door opens a crack and a white hand passes out a couple of slices of bread wrapped in a napkin. This is how director Bruno Dumont establishes the homeless psychopath who may have mystical powers in Hors Satan (Outside Satan). Only known as “the guy” (le gars) by the film’s end credits, David Dewaele plays the character with down-to-earth, subtle charm. It’s just as well, as this guy may be the devil incarnate or possibly the messiah. The actions that slowly unfold afterward are both extreme and conflicting, so Dumont never spells it out and leaves the viewer to arrive at his or her own conclusions.

Hors Satan is an art film in an almost classical art film sense. The dialogue is very spare and its message, if it has one, might seem opaque to the impatient viewer. The actions of the characters are often unexplained and lead to more questions than answers. Early in the film, the guy and a young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre, credited as “she”) are established as close, though not necessarily romantic. He has a crooked, craggy face and a relaxed gait, she has a sunken white face and a stiff stride. As these characters remain unnamed, it is up to the astute viewer to figure out who these people are by their slightest actions, and it is noticing such tiny details like how they carry themselves that will bring some semblance of relevance to the extreme acts that will follow, including cold-blooded murder, brutal beatings on man and animal alike, and an “exorcism” or two.

I place the word exorcism in quotations, as the film never offers anything concrete that these are indeed moments of exorcism. The film is more a string of details that are never over-emphasized. There is literally a tiny detail in the film that establishes this world as existing in a place that defies normal logic. On more than one occasion a bird can be heard frantically chirping. The guy looks up to the sky and stares. A tiny black dot, flapping its wings seems stuck up there. Maybe it is in the distance and too far to notice in motion, but I doubt that was the case. Could it be a hallucination? Yet the bird is so tiny what would it matter? What does it matter that the ambiguous protagonist is the only one who notices it?

And so the film reveals more questions than answers. Early in Hors Satan, the film’s crooked hero does something extreme that throws all sorts of questions into the mix. What happens is shocking, but what matters are the questions that inform the dynamic of these characters. Some viewers might feel hooked by the film’s intriguing, if extreme, moments while others might feel frustrated by them.

Dumont enhances the mystery of the film in his choice to not include any music whatsoever. The only music is that of the chirping bird. Otherwise, the film has no mood set by music, save for the wind and crashing waves. No one even turns on a radio to offer insight into their musical tastes. Though she wears tiny ear buds sometimes, one can only guess what she is listening to (probably the Cure, or maybe even Swans). There is also no musical theme during the opening and closing credits of the film. Nature dominates Hors Satan‘s soundtrack.

Nature also fills the film’s frames with vegetation, water and earth. These characters remain so elusive, that their time wandering the northern coastal landscape of France transcends them. Hence, the terrain becomes the strongest character in the film. The shadows that cross the land plainly symbolize the shadowy character at the film’s heart. The guy enters into the brush ahead of moments of his extreme behavior. During his only scene indoors, he stares out the window, always connected to the land. Indeed, the land seems to be his temple, as he kneels down on the ground, his hands cupped in his lap, in some strange form of prayer on more than one occasion. Frequently, the couple walks out into the land and they are shown as a pair of tiny black figures crossing through the hilly and sandy grasslands where much of the film takes place. A strange tower also figures into the land. It surely serves as a practical purpose in the farmlands, but shown fleetingly and seeming to produce a rifle for the man to use, it becomes mystical. There is another point when the land turns ablaze with fire, setting up another moment that reveals the magical-realist world of the film.

Dumont scatters these moments enough in the film that he seems more concerned with the humanity that informs the acts involving the guy, mundane or magical. In the end, the film ends on a hopeful, if still ambiguous note. Having dwelt on morality and extreme behavior involving rape and murder in his early films, Dumont seems to have taken his concerns to another level, concerning himself, if somewhat ambiguously, with religious overtones (see his previous film, 2009’s Hadewijch). Hors Satan reveals a concern with the earthly moment of man’s interaction with the weight of infinite and eternal questions brought into society by religion. But look to the land, which has produced all sorts of artifacts B.C. of once long-reigning societies with other beliefs. In the end, this film seems to point out, no matter how long the fleeting moment lasts for man on earth, the planet will continue spinning in the universe, in no matter what state it finds itself in, either burnt out or lush and green.

Rumination of such sublime ideas are channeled by great pieces of art, and Hors Satan ranks among the better movies of the year for that reason. As loose as it seems, the film will wind up haunting you days after initial viewing. Dumont does not cram ideas down the viewer’s proverbial throat. Instead, like the best art films, he stimulates the intellect of the viewer to come to his or her own revelation.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer (NSFW):

Hors Satan is not rated, runs 109 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It plays exclusively in South Florida for two nights only: Tuesday, Sept. 4 and Wednesday Sept. 5, both at 8:30 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as part of the theater’s “Cinephile’s Choice” series. The Miami Beach Cinematheque loaned me a screener DVD for the purposes of this review. New Yorker Films, the distributor, has planned a theatrical release in 2013. If you are outside South Florida, bookmark New Yorker’s website, as you might have to wait until then to see it or catch it at select film festivals.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)