By Christopher Sharrett.
Hadewijch is the first of two films (the second is Hors Satan) directly focused on the pursuit of the spiritual. I should say first that the two films present a problem, since the search is embodied in Hadewijch in a hysterical young woman named Céline (Julie Sokolowski), who models her life after the thirteenth-century ascetic poet-nun Hadewijch. Although she (or at least we) achieves some crucial knowledge by the film’s end, there is no missing her unreason, her constant emotional fits. By contrast, Hors Satan, by Dumont’s own account, has a male protagonist who represents a spirituality achieved. We thus have a gender issue that is familiar – the female as crippled (rather than enhanced, as in Flandres) by her emotional nature. To be fair, Dumont wanted Hadewijch to explore religious pursuits as symptomatic of alienation, with Hors Satan a partial answer to traditional religious myths. Yet the familiar idea of the unstable female is irksome.
The gender issue by no means discredits the film. The exploration here of a person totally driven by the need to unite with Jesus, with a notion imbibed from religious narratives, is crucial (and rarely so forthrightly handled) since it is so basic to western society, even as the Church recedes. At times, Céline is off-putting, with her sobs and pleas to God, her pervasive neurosis driven, one could say, by an overwhelmingly spoiled-child view of the world. Dumont invites us to see the religious temperament as narcissistic, as so totally inward-directed and concerned with self-perfection it ceases to be human, even as its inclination is toward heteronomy, toward surrendering the self totally to some exterior force. The portrait of Céline therefore has some kinship with Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism in its concern for the personality so vulnerable it can be refashioned to suit the will of others, which is in fact the case here.
Céline is more pious and full of self-abnegation than the nuns in the convent where she is a novice. She refuses to eat, causing concern for the Mother Superior (ecclesiastical terms always provoke analysis, and not a little laughter). She gently rebukes Céline, telling her that fasting is fine, but not martyrdom. But, one may ask, hasn’t the mortification and even destruction of the flesh been deeply inscribed in Christian lore? Céline, for all her neurosis, seems more appealing (mainly because of Julie Sokolowski’s radiance) than the superannuated nuns who police her activity; Céline is more vital, even in what appears to be her near-suicidal activity, than the dead institution to which she goes for instruction. The old nun tells her colleague that Céline is turning into “a caricature of a nun.” (One asks: can nuns be caricatured?) But Dumont’s counterpoint gives the old nun a moment; what she says to another shriveled nun is not wrong – Céline can assist herself by learning more of the world. Still, there is no question that Céline represents human vitality. In a stunning moment that is another achievement by Yves Cape, Céline examines the pieces of bread in her hand, seen in close-up. In long-shot, we see Céline, framed by the convent garden, feeding birds. Céline then walks, the camera behind her, toward some dead trees and a high-rise building project beyond (“the world”) where she meets David (the magnificent David Dewaele), a day-worker and ex-convict who soon finds himself back in jail for parole violation. His story and Céline’s constitute parallel narratives.
There is another moment representative of Céline’s innate and profound goodness, her beauty exteriorized in her physical splendor. While at her parents’ home, she bathes, then, naked, climbs into bed, after first kissing and caressing her little white dog. She whispers “May God be with you, my love.” Julie Sokolowski’s performance is here utterly affecting, evoking perfectly the gentleness and spontaneous affection that at this scene makes her “one with the world,” as she invests the scene with a sense of the goodness of all being. Yet her neurosis, her anxiety about the proverbial silence of God, continues as her defining characteristic.
We see real material reasons for Céline’s alienated outlook. She is the daughter of a wealthy government minister, her Paris home a sumptuous but overdone amalgam of baroque and neoclassical gilt. Céline’s alienation from her two parents seems total, especially so when she brings home for dinner her new boyfriend Yassine (Yassine Salim), who is interested in a sexual relationship that Céline refuses; she is a “bride of Christ.” The parents pretend a tolerance for the Arab boy that is transparent in its condescension. When the boy and girl leave Céline’s parents, there is a sense of liberation, a moment of the erotic, especially when Yassine steals a motorcycle, facilitating their joyous flight through the city.
There is a sense of Céline making contact with an authentically spiritual life through her momentary notice of other people, art, the erotic. At a concert in a park, Céline and Yassine listen to a shirtless punk band called La Mathilda; they play, on accordion, saxophone, and guitar, Bach’s The Art of the Fugue (while Bach would have applauded the experimentation with instruments, he would have otherwise rolled over in his grave). It is a crucial moment, one of Dumont’s affirmations of past culture as vital, renewing the present and emblematic of the erotic. Yassine proposes sex with Céline once again, and once again she pulls away. There is a complementary moment later in the film, when Céline walks into a large, stunningly white gothic church. A string ensemble with vocalist plays “Gebt mir meinen Jesus wieder,” from the St. Matthew Passion. The musicians are dressed in casual clothes. The lead violinist, a woman, notices Céline and smiles at her; Céline returns the smile and becomes enamored of the piece the group plays, the camera pushing in and lingering on her as she comes fully alive, her radiance palpably expanding. The humanness of the moment is remarkable, the scene enhanced by the spontaneity of everything in the image.
The crucial turning point is Céline’s meeting with Yassine’s brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis). The moment is evocative, beginning with Céline’s journey to the men’s apartment in a high-rise. She proceeds on a walkway that bisects a large, empty, dead expanse, taking her to some nondescript white apartment buildings standing alone in the distance. The moment recalls Antonioni’s handling of the soulless features of modern architecture in La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962). Even as one first watches the film, there is a strong sense of the bankruptcy of the religious quest, its hollowness, particularly given the postmodern circumstance.
At first the encounter with Nassir seems to be a welcome “ecumenical” moment, with Céline finding comfort with like-minded people, kinsmen in their devotion if not their religion. While Yassine and Nassir practice their Islamic devotions, Céline assumes the traditional kneeling posture of Christian prayer. The sense of fellowship is challenged when Céline meets Nassir’s friends; she is so taken by the religious commitments of Nassir that she is very close to renouncing Christianity, although her view suggests that she is impressed chiefly by the men’s total devotion to the Abrahamic God.
The film at this point has a weakness. Nassir’s friends project a sense of threat as they trade glances, seeing the young girl as a fascinating waif. The dour aspect given to Islam, and the idea of swarthy non-Europeans seducing the beautiful Christian girl, raises serious criticisms, at least given the demonization of the Islamic world by the US and much of the West. The predatory Other versus the vulnerable white woman is a familiar trope since the beginning of narrative. Dumont has stated that Islam is merely the patriarchal religion currently on the ascendancy; the sense of commitment matches Céline’s simply because her faith is archaic, and as much in denial of the human in its primitivism and unreason as any “faith” at any time.
The relationship Nassir has with Céline is one of manipulation from the first, based as much on typical patriarchal control as on his need to incorporate Céline into his mission, which becomes a tad too obvious. Nassir and Céline sit in a garden, framed by beautiful red shrubs, as he essentially interrogates her beliefs. He corrects her small behaviors (“wipe your nose”). Nassir is, however, mostly another version of Céline. He wants to see if her devotion is as sincere as his, or, one should say, as extreme as his. At this point the film’s feminism is quite visible. Céline, for all her anxieties – and annoying they can be – is not only harmless but an affirmative presence. There is no guile or violence in her. Her inclinations, however, her need to make God “visible,” make her dangerous.
The massive explosion on the subway that blows through the pavement in front of the Arc de Triomphe, an archetypal monument to imperialism and colonialism, seems to be the film’s denouement, suggesting that religion is never anything more than fanaticism, a view that Dumont has said is not wrong. Céline has abrogated her will entirely, offering slavish devotion to Nassir, her slavish devotion as much about the female typically surrendering her femaleness to the service of patriarchal authority as Céline following a man who may have the “key to existence.” But the explosion is also that of unsatisfied yearnings, Céline’s, but certainly all people who face the frustrations of doctrine.
Dumont again defies narrative as the film continues. Has Céline survived the terrorist plot, or are we seeing a moment from earlier in her life, when she was still a novice? The narrative seems circular, with Céline running up the same hillside we saw at the beginning, Céline dropping to her knees to weep openly at a shrine. But she is told, while she prays in the church-convent, that some men wish to see her. We do not witness an interrogation; one seems able to select this sequence or the explosion as the film’s conclusion, although Dumont has a specific purpose in Céline’s return to the church, her tears, her even more exaggerated anxiety, and her dash to a pond, where she attempts to drown herself. Before this happens, Céline and a blank-faced nun from the film’s opening take shelter from rain in a greenhouse. They are accompanied by David, the convict/workman now laboring at the church. He is shirtless, his skinny body and face filthy and perspiring. He looks at Céline as the camera locks on his emaciated, slightly sinister features. The erotic has arrived.
As Céline dashes down the hill to drown herself, the soundtrack introduces the “Couronnement au ciel” from André Caplet’s Le Miroir de Jésus, a florid and highly emotional piece once loved by decadents such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, although Dumont offers it without irony. As Céline seems lost under water, she is suddenly pulled out by David. He embraces her as she sobs, the camera reversing position to show his face as he glances upward. The divine has been saved by the erotic, by the activity of the human. That David should be central to the last image seems sensible, since the actor David Dewaele, in a virtually reincarnated form, is central to the next film.
Hors Satan seems to me Dumont’s best-realized achievement thus far, his most controlled and accomplished, perhaps since it contains his sparest script yet, with an emphasis on landscape (conveying his rich inheritance from painting), and on the body and its gestures, their conveyance of need, doubt, anxiety, and terror. It is the second of the two films focused on ideas derived from religious mythology, which are deeply problematized by the director.
Dumont realizes fully his goal of examining the spiritual image for its fascinations, at the levels both of form and content. The filmmaker here asks why people create, and why we are interested in creations; Hors Satan isn’t an essay by any means, but it is a work that tends to explain why non-religious people can be absolutely taken by Bach and Giotto. This film dips into art history even more forcefully than the earlier films with glorious results – Dumont showed his lead actor David Dewaele paintings by Raphael and the Flemish Masters for inspiration. The landscape of Dumont’s familiar Northern France now has a transcendent quality.
I have recently thought of Hors Satan in relation to Vertigo (1958), mainly because the two films could not be more opposite in their treatment of the essential theme of the heterosexual couple. While Vertigo is filled with the vertiginous and delirious, with the liebestod and the anxious male fashioning the female as he pleases, Hors Satan avoids Romanticism entirely (preferring the beauty and ideology of French Realism), replacing sexual dependence with friendship, and has the female walking side-by-side with the male, but without the customary hand-holding. That said, Dumont does not leave patriarchal relations totally behind. The male is clearly the center of the film. The woman is clearly fascinated with the male, and the male enjoys the lion’s share of sexual charisma.
The narrative of Hors Satan depends upon a myth popular since antiquity, the Stranger from Nowhere, whose very presence is both disruptive and restorative to a vulnerable, repressed community, a fascination recurrent in the postwar cinema (Shane , Picnic , The Fugitive Kind , Teorema ). David Dewaele plays the Stranger, listed in the credits simply as Le Gars (The Guy). His performance is remarkable, alone a compelling reason to study this film. Dewaele’s development since his smaller roles in Flandres and Hadewijch (there as the literal savior who rescues Céline from drowning) is stunning. In those films, made just a few years before Hors Satan, Dewaele’s face seemed adolescent and unformed, even a bit grotesque, his bad teeth prominent. As the Stranger, Dewaele has proverbial chiseled good looks with weathered, mature features, expressive of a self-possessed, stoic character. Yet one does not miss his wounded features, and the sense of damage and even disaster just below the surface – Dewaele’s past travails, including prison, are perfectly inscribed on this face.
The Stranger lives behind the fragment of a brick building (or is it simply a pile of bricks crudely mortared? The sense of a waning civilization, with poverty a central feature, is more evident here than in any previous Dumont) in a sand dune on the French Opal Coast, the landscapes of which are stunningly rendered by cinematographer Yves Cape. By the time of this film, the Dumont/Cape partnership has produced stunning imagery (some of the best in this film) and become one of the most productive collaborations in film history, rivaling Bergman/Nykvist.
The Stranger subsists on donated food; in the first shot, we see a hand knocking on a door, then filled with a sandwich by the hand of the resident – Biblical tropes are invoked mainly to be subverted. The Stranger walks endlessly across the morning countryside, occasionally bowing his head or dropping to his knees, his palms turned upward, as are The Girl’s (Alexandre Lemâtre) when she joins him – it might be argued that Dumont imitates the Islamic prayer posture (Dewaele converted shortly before his sudden death), but there is no suggestion of a deity, and the pose is a bit odd, I think, since one hand overlaps the other, suggesting perhaps an amalgam of prayer postures. The gesture recurs many times in the film, motivated by the Stranger’s sudden encounter with the beauty of the natural world, in landscapes recalling Corot, Fragonard, Church, Constable, Turner, and at a particularly engrossing moment, Millet’s Angelus. There is no mistaking the motivation: in shot-counter shot constructions, the Stranger comes upon a landscape and gazes at it, dropping to his knees. What he and The Girl observe is always at eye level. In the first such moment of the film, the Stranger climbs over a fence at dawn, the morning light reflected on his hair (Dewaele’s longer hair here serves the part well) as he walks toward the rising sun, stopping to kneel before its image on the horizon. This could be said to be “morning prayers,” but the character seems clearly motivated by the seen rather than the unseen.
While the upward gaze at a beautiful but empty sky is a common visual gesture in Dumont, there is even less sense here than in the previous films of pursuit of solace from a god. If the film has any theology, it is pantheism (one hesitates to apply any doctrine to Dumont), but the film makes us focus principally on the assumptions of belief and the degree to which they are involved in the projection of the believer, as the Stranger takes on a messianic aspect. By stripping the myth down to its bare essentials, the viewer must entertain its assumptions. Dumont makes such study difficult as he combines myth and reality. The Stranger’s destructive aspect is often capricious and pointless – he is not always the Clint Eastwood character of High Plains Drifter (1973), the devil-messiah who arrives at a corrupt town (read, America) to incinerate it. The Stranger plays with the shotgun he used to kill The Girl’s abusive stepfather. He fires it into the hills. He and The Girl walk up to find a badly wounded deer, provoking anger from The Girl as the Stranger drops to his knees, as if he were a Native American asking forgiveness for robbing nature as he takes his food. The Stranger picks up a large rock and bashes the deer’s skull, after which they stand and gaze at nature’s loss. Dumont relocates the action in the human, but perhaps something also alarming; the Stranger may be not an irresponsible boy-man, but a psychotic. (It is always instructive how art produces concern on our part at the death of an “innocent animal,” even after murder of a human has occurred, which is often shocking but tolerated.)
The Stranger’s first encounter with a tall, distraught, punkish young woman, with a face of pale radiance, begins the central struggle. It is The Girl. Her cry for help (caused by her abusive stepfather) produces the Stranger’s benevolent, outstretched hand as he walks toward her. The consoling hand would itself be a New Testament reference were the Stranger already not a figure about whom one’s judgment is already so tentative. The Girl waits by the wall of a massive octagonal lighthouse as the Stranger steps heroically into the right side of the frame, wielding a shotgun. They stand patiently by the Girl’s farmhouse. The Stranger efficiently kills the stepfather from a distance, as the camera then slowly tracks toward them as their faces turn toward the viewer, producing stunning, evocative portraiture (I think of the detail of Bellini or Van Eyck) that turns the moment contemplative in a key feature of the film.
The Stranger’s interventions are both wrathful and benevolent. He smashes the skull of the Girl’s predatory suitor (spitting on him contemptuously – the metaphysical is never distant from the ordinary), then visits the home of a near-catatonic young woman, her mother pleading in despair. The Stranger gazes at length at the girl in a darkened bedroom recalling French Realism. She snaps at him. He leaves, but sometime later returns, kissing the young woman ferociously, producing dreadful noises suggesting her painful violation. But the woman comes around, the mother then kissing the Stranger’s hand, bowing in gratitude.
In another apparent demonstration of power, the Stranger notes a huge brushfire. He tells the Girl to walk across a stone barrier separating two halves of a reservoir. She curses the Stranger but traverses the massive pond, collapsing angrily into his arms as he chuckles and turns her around to show that the fire has stopped. The moment recalls the early monologue in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), where Alexander speculates on the miraculous possibilities of the quotidian act.
The combination of killer and savior embodied in the Stranger makes it easy to assume that Dumont is engaged in a Nietzschean “beyond good and evil” exercise, but there is no evidence of such a dogmatic conceit. In an interview, Dumont remarks that he could have called the film Hors Dieu, “but one has to choose.” There are none of Nietzsche’s grand assertions here, and certainly none of his misogyny. The Girl is a partner and friend to the Stranger rather than a disciple. It is interesting that Dumont cast Lemâtre, several inches taller than Dewaele (downplaying the Stranger’s allure), but the presence of one actor never overwhelms that of the other (to be sure, Dewaele’s enigmatic, alternately soulful or doleful gaze constitutes the most compelling moments of recent cinema).
The Stranger and the Girl have an authentic but platonic relationship. They walk across the Opal Coast’s open plains and through its forests and marshes, and romp playfully in the sand dunes near the Stranger’s sparse dwelling. When the Girl proposes sex, the Stranger gracefully begs off, the suggestion being that sex will ruin things. Later, when he has parted company with the Girl, the Stranger encounters a young female vagabond who momentarily accompanies him on his seemingly endless journey across the countryside. They stop to rest, the woman asking for sex. The Stranger consents and the woman promptly undresses. The act causes the woman to growl, foam at the mouth (the foam resembles semen) and tear at the turf (as is often the case in Dumont, one’s attention focuses, I think, on the hand pulling at nature), as if falling into madness. When the Stranger departs, the nude woman dives into a pool, and emerges wide-eyed, as if transformed into a visionary.
Hors Satan, like Dumont’s earlier films, immediately provokes interrogation. Is the Stranger simply a lunatic beguiling local rubes (and us)? There is a hint that the Stranger may have set the brushfire that he somehow extinguishes, and his “healing of the sick” may be the inducement of one trauma to negate another. These acts may indicate a confidence man – his true nature might be revealed in the nonchalance of his violence.
The Girl is killed by an ominous-looking, very obese man, a local madman viewed by the camera with suspicion since his rather off-handed introduction early in the film. The Stranger stares at The Girl’s body on her bier, carries her to the marshes (with some exertion, suggesting the Stranger’s humanness) where he leaves her body. After righting another wrong, the Stranger proceeds down the road, accompanied by the killer’s abandoned dog. He has tidied things up, taking nature itself in hand. Meanwhile, The Girl “resurrects” (was she actually dead?) and runs home to her aghast mother. We are therefore confronted with an out-and-out “miracle.” Dumont is interested less in having us “weigh the evidence” of what happened than consider the belief systems involved here. They have inspired the extraordinary, often self-reflexive or confounding works of the Quattrocento, but also the repression that is the sum and substance of religious doctrine. Dumont has spoken of his late actor David Dewaele as “all powerful,” which has a theological ring, except when we in fact encounter his performance. His character may simply be a drifter who takes in the impressionable; in the case of this film, we are the ones gulled, in the manner of any viewer before intelligent art.
Questions persist about Dumont’s gender politics. In Hors Satan, the spiritual is embodied in a charismatic, self-possessed, handsome man, who seems, by and large, in control of his faculties. As I noted regarding Hadewijch, the spiritual seeker is Céline (Julie Sokolowski), a young female hysteric easily overwhelmed by any fellow loon who steps into view. But Dumont never belittles his characters: Céline in Hadewijch and the Stranger in Hors Satan, are both enticing yet fraught with issues that bedevil the viewer. And Dumont’s interest in the ability of eros to thrive as a symbol of the spiritual always encounters the oppression imposed by men, from men usually being “on top” in the sex act to men violating or obliterating the female. As mentioned earlier, in at least one Dumont film, La Vie de Jésus, there seems little question that the sacred resides in Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) rather than the cruel Freddy (David Douche) and his pack of motorbiking idiots. In Hors Satan, we might say the sexes have come very close to reaching parity – by this I mean that Dumont considers seriously the ideological situation of the female, and adjusts his ongoing study of the spiritual/humanist life as he sees the potentials for material change in human society.
Hors Satan is a modest film that nevertheless brings to mind a most distinguished inheritance. Donatello, Giotto, Bernini, Leonardo, and Bruegel were certainly doing more than merely investigating devotion in their staggering works, and their realized accomplishments, of course, leave Dumont far behind, but they share with Dumont what Paul Tillich called “matters of ultimate concern.” What Dumont shares with his predecessors is a degree of seriousness, a concern for the value of his project and its position within a tradition.
Camille Claudel 1915
The story of sculptor Camille Claudel is often rendered, certainly in the florid, overproduced 1988 film by Bruno Nuytten, as a tempestuous romance between a talented but highly neurotic Camille and her genius mentor/lover Auguste Rodin. Or, to the contrary, her tale is simply one of a neurotic woman who did not know her limitations, and almost ruined the far more inspired Rodin. In Nuytten’s version, Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu give credible if stereotypical performances as the two principles – at the time, both actors were flamboyant stars who tended to overwhelm the narrative and continue a blinkered understanding of the Camille Claudel story. As the affair with Rodin fades away, Camille goes insane, and is interned in an asylum. The end titles inform us that Camille remained incarcerated for the rest of her life. We are asked to accept that the reasons for her insanity are self-evident, and that Rodin and brother Paul Claudel, although flawed in numerous respects (certainly in the case of the narcissistic Rodin), presented no particular reason for interrogating the foundations of illness in the bizarre Camille, who destroys her own artworks.
Camille Claudel 1915 is Dumont’s most obviously feminist film to date; he fleshes out ideas about the plight of the female (Marie, Domino, Katia, Barbe, Céline) from previous films as the woman becomes central to his understanding of art and its significance. It is clear that Dumont sides with Camille in her several “paranoid” speeches, especially the stunning one during Paul’s visit, which are testaments to the plight not only of the female artist but women overall at the hands of men.
He begins Camille’s story in the first year of her incarceration (there is no other word for it) at the Montdevergues mental asylum. The film is based in part on medical documents and letters between Camille and Paul; his unequivocal sympathy for Camille is not uninformed. He questions the accepted wisdom for Camille’s lifetime internment in insane asylums as he penetrates the miasma enough to offer an unsparing verdict about the role of the mental institution, one not far from Foucault, but far away indeed from Foucault’s anti-humanist ethic. Dumont maintains a realist aesthetic – again Courbet is relevant, certainly less here for his eroticism than his close scrutiny of the physical world – while venturing close to the gothic. The film is horrifying and beatific, restrained and sumptuous, its narrative preoccupied with how art thrives in a stifling environment. His cinematic solution of course is to highlight the beauty even in repressive locales, while never valorizing repression.
Various medical terms were applied to Camille’s case, including “schizophrenia,” a popular diagnosis (especially for the female) all the way to the 1960s. At the heart of Camille Claudel 1915 are some basic topics: the definition of insanity by bourgeois society; the treatment of women by the medical establishment; the treatment of obnoxious (to men) female artists in particular; and the burden of inspiration for the artist, with art’s severe mental and social resistances. One can’t help but compare Dumont’s enormous intelligence and sensitivity to his topic to the rubbish of films (made, we must note, over fifty years ago) like The Caretakers (1963); (time is not an excuse – compare The Caretakers to Vincente Minnelli’s very intelligent The Cobweb , where the asylum patients are no more neurotic than their caregivers).
Juliette Binoche may have her greatest role as Camille Claudel, courageously performing without makeup, or, perhaps, with particular touches to emphasize her character’s debility. She embodies human dignity, always projecting the most profound human dignity while living within the most oppressive circumstances. From the film’s first moment we see Camille imposed on by others. Two nuns undress her and force her to take a bath in a cloth-lined tub, inside the chilly blue-gray walls of the sanatorium. As they manipulate her naked body, the nuns insist “Let’s have no trouble…you’re always filthy.” But where is this evident? It is so of course in the minds of the tired-looking nuns, all enervated servants of God, like near-expressionless early medieval renderings of the human, but Dumont never demeans a human presence. What he criticizes is the institution of the Church, which deprives civilization of vitality, and strips away humanity’s most significant instincts.
The erotic, unlike in any other Dumont film, isn’t present here. One could imagine that it could be here; Binoche is nothing if not an impressively erotic woman. But the erotic has vanished because it no longer can thrive; this aesthetic choice is consciously ideological. The nuns are mostly caring rather than monstrous, yet Dumont’s images imply a sense of something not represented, as in all of his films. Here, the repression of the nuns never implies its opposite, that is the world of life and sex; rather, we focus on a horror which only Camille witnesses. Dumont questions whether any incarceration can be benign, especially as it demeans the sensitivity of a perceptive human temperament, fully embodied in Camille. A nun washes Camille’s right hand; one wonders if she gives a thought to what that hand has accomplished, in a moment that seems sacramental.
Camille tries to live apart from the other patients (we should note that they are all female – even though the asylum has placed men in a separate wing, there is a sense, given Dumont’s emphasis, on the female as lunatic within patriarchal bourgeois society – as Robin Wood remarked, “hysteria” seems a reasonable response to the bourgeois world), all of whom are extremely deranged or mentally retarded. The medical practice doesn’t make distinctions, placing someone like Camille with those far more ill (Camille’s illness is diagnosed as paranoia, in her case a not-unreasonable response to the world). All of the patients are gently policed, all long since designated for the human waste bin, for all the thin expressions of sympathy, essentially convenient modes of manipulation when physical force is impractical (it is difficult not to consider how the fate of the mentally ill under European fascism flowed from this moment, and for that matter, how the “soft cop” features of the asylum are the foundations of manipulation in postmodern bourgeois society, of advertising and the propaganda system).
The intrusive presence of both patients and their overseers deprives Camille of solitude, preventing her from coping with the creative urge, the attempt to represent the impossible that is her chief demon. She sits alone outside after eating (she has an agreement to cook her own food and dine by herself, violated by a numbskull younger doctor, causing Camille’s momentary explosion of anger), looking at the effect of the setting sun on a dead tree, a stunning moment brilliantly rendered by cinematographer Guillame Deffontaines, the sublime image fractured by another intrusion by a nun, who asks Camille to look after the severely handicapped Mademoiselle Lucas, who becomes a friend to the initially repulsed Camille. The moment is important beyond the callous disruption of Camille’s meditations. By making the request, the nun and the institution reveal both incompetence and, more importantly, hypocrisy, acknowledging that Camille isn’t truly ill, certainly not enough to prevent them from placing another patient in her care. A concern here is Dumont’s lingering camera, his prolonged portrait of the retarded Mademoiselle Lucas, who stands open-mouthed, murmuring, eyes unfocused. Is Dumont “exploiting” the mentally ill? Is he “sympathetic” toward the human Other (as in, say, Tod Browning’s Freaks ?). Setting aside matters of permission given by family or the patients themselves, such questions axiomatically ask us to see the mentally handicapped as subhuman, as people we should not observe as we do all others. But Dumont, who has stated his commitment to replace religion with art in assisting an understanding of the nature of Being, seems to pose somewhat shopworn but still relevant questions about a benevolent God causing such suffering, as Dumont uses art’s capacity to reveal the grandeur of the human without allusion to a divinity.
Camille’s search for privacy is a constant reminder of her state of mind. As she tries to sketch a tree, she is interrupted, a retarded woman suddenly standing at her shoulder, met with Camille’s rage; the mentally ill remind her not just of her own infirmities but the frustrations posed by art – they are both perfectly benevolent and the demons of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason. Another violation occurs as she kneels in the chapel, tearfully praying for her brother Paul to rescue her, although she turns cheerful as she joins an intruding patient’s “halleluiahs,” which mirror her joy at Paul’s upcoming visit.
The film’s theme of the tortured artist seems a bit hoary, in the past rendered in ways touching yet vulgar (Lust for Life, 1956). Dumont’s approach to the topic is economical and in so being, stunning, the most compelling sequence involving Camille during a stroll on the grounds, picking up a handful of mud – or clay or horse dung – rapidly molding it with a single hand into something that starts to resemble a human figure. Binoche’s background as a painter facilitates the incredible moment. Camille struggles with the material, but grimaces and stops, apparently in self-loathing and regret about the past – she discards the potential sculpture. Although Camille has sworn off art (or wants to), she attends a production of Don Juan staged by the patients. At first she enjoys herself, then, understanding too well the implications of the Don Juan story and their resonance within her life, breaks down. Dumont’s quiet but relentless style comments insistently on Camille’s inner war, the impossibility, for the authentic artist, of separating art and creativity from the turbulence of emotion in a sensitive human being.
The hopelessness of her predicament is manifest during a “therapy” session with the institution’s superintendant (Robert Leroy), a sclerotic elderly man who sits open-mouthed as Camille explains much of her life, her outlook, the conspiracy to keep her hospitalized that she sees caused by Rodin. The doctor realizes, as we see at the end, that in front of him is a brilliant woman, past diagnoses either obsolete or flatly wrong. (The conspiracy she sees is real enough, but did not begin with Rodin.) The benevolent doctor does not judge Camille insane, although he is perplexed that she would still hold a grudge against the esteemed Rodin, since the affair “ended twenty years ago.” The assumption, of course, is that the female should “get over it,” with the notion that a woman feeling traumatized so late in the game by sexual betrayal is downright ridiculous.
Camille’s salvation, so she thinks, is her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), a poet who rose to international renown during his sister’s long incarceration. Paul became celebrated by the Catholic Church for the religious effusions of his poetry, an element about which he brags to an impressionable, entranced young priest (Emmanuelle Kaufman). Obviously a disturbed and disturbing psychopathic narcissist, Paul goes on about how Rimbaud made him “crack the walls of [his] materialist prison.” How the author of “The Drunken Boat” accomplished this is unclear, and unnecessary to clarify. We first see Paul kneeling on a hillside at dusk, telling God of his total fealty, and that he “never thought of mystic pleasure or delighting in God, but obedience.” Dumont films him through increasing darkness in medium close-up, his dark mustache and eyebrows accenting his malevolence. In the following scene, he is naked at a desk, informing his diary “Whatever you [God] say I believe…I write not as a Pharisee but with the compassion of a brother.” At points he gazes down at his body, flexing the muscles of his torso. One can see him as absurdly self-absorbed, at this moment worshipping his body in a manner almost masturbatory. Paul, the esteemed poet, the credible, sane, pious spokesperson for his culture, is a fiend, his actions, like those of all psychopaths, carefully contained so as not to reveal his conscienceless nature, permitting him to wear the mask of normality. But does no one else see this? The film notes the dubious demarcation between self and other, the normal and the abnormal.
But Camille is subjected to this final knowledge as Paul makes one of his very infrequent visits (in fact a visit every three to five years was typical of Paul Claudel; he did not attend her burial in a mass grave). Paul is no Theo to Camille’s van Gogh. As she embraces him (they shared much intimacy in childhood and adolescence – it was she who recommended Rimbaud), Paul not returning it, she pleads for his assistance in attaining freedom. He feigns concern but states the family position, rooted in the demands of the mother (who ordered that Camille not receive mail, cutting her off from the world). Paul ignores his sister as she delivers her most overwhelming speech on the nature of patriarchal control, its destruction of women and the world of art; it is spoken for our benefit, Paul having made up his mind on certain matters. He offers some Christian admonitions and leaves Camille. Paul’s rejection of his sister is all the more appalling after his final walk with the doctor, who admits that Camille no longer needs the dubious care of an asylum. We are told that Paul has donated a large sum to the asylum, so we witness both the mercenary nature of the apparently paternal old doctor, and the full monstrousness of Paul Claudel, who has paid to keep his sister interred.
There is no better authority on the life and work of Paul Claudel than Simone de Beauvoir, who discusses Claudel’s supremely Catholic view of the female: “Her lot, the lot the bourgeoisie has always assigned to her, is to devote herself to her children, her husband, her home, her realm, to country, and to church; man gives activity, woman her person; to sanctify this hierarchy in the name of the divine does not modify it in the least, but on the contrary attempts to fix it in the eternal.”
All of Claudel’s rhapsodies on the glories of the godhead, when not simply emblems of his dangerous psychopathy, are repetitions of the unalloyed, destructive, anti-female ideology of the Church.
The final image shows Camille again sitting alone on a bench admiring nature, the superimposed end titles informing us that she remained in the asylum until her death in 1943. She smiles and bends her head slightly forward, as if acknowledging her fate. The “Suscepit Israel” from Bach’s Magnificat, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, fills the soundtrack as the credits roll. The canticle has little to do here with the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth. Rather, it is Dumont’s exultation of a fine sensibility, one cast into the shadows, unlike narcissists like Paul, whose involvement in art is about self-aggrandizement, and therefore embraced by the public. Camille Claudel is represented as an emblem of society’s indifference toward authentic art, that which is profoundly entangled with human torment.
Dumont’s work began with an introduction to an acute intelligence. As his work has progressed, this intelligence has become fully aligned with authoritative command of his form. The word “patience” recurs in my mind when I think of his achievements in extracting beauty from the face and from nature. This patience is by no means as mannered as that of Bresson, the name that critics use to nag him (I can think of no sensible reason why). Dumont has no patience for the use for monotone voices and stilted performance on the part of “models.” But we can set aside such concerns. The real issue at present is whether interested people will be able to see future Dumont (and a few peers) given the deplorable downward intellectual slide of the US industry, which, as in all matters US, wants to dominate (which means destroy) this art form or perish.
My deepest gratitude to Joan Hubbard, my wife, for our talks about Bruno Dumont and the fine arts, and for her critical reading of this essay. Thanks also to Graham Fuller for our exchanges about Pharaon De Winter.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is currently revisiting Bach’s Violin Concertos, and the novels of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot.
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