Bruno Dumont’s austere new feature, his follow up to the 2011 Cannes title, ‘Hors Satan’, blends a restrained style with an impassioned spirituality that comes from an European tradition, having its origins in the canonical works of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky and, perhaps most completely, Robert Bresson and proves a worthy successor.
It’s also a deeply disturbing and, in Dumont’s own quiet way, daring film that has professional actors and severely mentally disabled cast members acting out scenes, which, inevitably, flip between reality and fiction where there is no clear boundary between the two.
And, thankfully, it gives Juliette Binoche a weighty role after a few performances where she has had little more to do than metaphorically shell peas.
Binoche plays Camille Claudel, the sculptor who spectacularly fell out with her former teacher and lover, Auguste Rodin, before being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1913 and admitted to an asylum. In keeping with the strangely awkward title, the film takes place two years later and we find Camille incarcerated ‘like a prisoner’ – her words – within a remote setting near Avignon.
This is a self-contained place where regimented rituals slow perception of time to a near standstill and endow tiny episodes with massive significance; seemingly defying the nearby Great War. The long silences create a false impression of tranquility; inducing a remorseless tedium against a backdrop where normal conversation is totally beyond Camille’s fellow inmates. We see Camille staring with an artist’s eye at small but beautiful details – a shadow giving a wall an abstract quality that contemporaneous painters were only just starting to explore – but made all the more painful – downright cruel – by the asylum not allowing Camille her artist materials.
She receives news that her beloved younger brother, the mystical poet, Paul Claudel, will pay her a visit. It’s a momentous occasion, at least, for Camille but, after their father’s death, Paul is responsible for this outrage, insisting upon her containment as head of the patriarchal family.
Binoche strikes precisely the right note, giving Claudel a worn-down weariness and lucidity, only broken by occasional hints of paranoia but totally disproportionate to her so-called treatment.
Jean-Luc Vincent brings an internalised but frenzied spiritualism to Paul that is a dangerous mix of extreme Catholicism and artistic temperament.
Both are compelling and the one sequence that has them on screen together is the most emotionally charged and unsettling of the film.
Dumont – based on letters, medical records and other archival material – dramatises a phase in Claudel’s incarceration when she retains some hope of an early release. Making it all the more devastating, we know that she was destined to remain there until her death almost thirty years later.
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