Juliette Binoche delivers a tour-de-force performance in “Camille Claudel 1915,” a curious little movie about the late sculptor who, after a years-long affair with sculptor Auguste Rodin and the death of her father, was committed by her family to a mental institution, where she died in 1943. Working from medical records and Claudel’s own letters, writer-director Bruno Dumont (“Hors Satan”) focuses on her story during her confinement in Montdevergues, where she spends her days fretting about being poisoned, furtively writing friends and waiting for her brother, Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), the only family member who will visit her.
Much like “12 Years a Slave,” Claudel’s story is about a person isolated and radically constrained, and like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in that film, Binoche does an impressive job of conveying her character’s desperation through a stunning physical and facial performance. (Fans may remember when Isabelle Adjani portrayed the artist in 1988’s far less naturalistic “Camille Claudel.”)
Far more troublesome is Dumont’s decision to cast real-life nursing home patients in “Camille Claudel 1915,” a choice that’s as much ethical as aesthetic; whatever realism the filmmaker was able to attain carries with it thorny issues of exploitation and consent. Presumably, Dumont responds to these objections by way of Paul, when he delivers a carefully worded speech to Camille about God’s presence in each and every one of us.
But despite its austere beauty, elegant triptych-like structure and faultlessly disciplined performances, “Camille Claudel 1915” still raises more questions than it answers — about how the title character ended up in such misbegotten circumstances (Paul makes an oblique reference to Claudel’s abortion) and about artistic responsibility. “Camille Claudel 1915” winds up feeling more like an exercise than an exploration. But maybe that “1915” in the title means that Dumont isn’t finished with Claudel’s sad, strange, fascinating life.
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains brief nudity and adult themes. In French with subtitles. 95 minutes.