Aspiring sculptress Camille Claudel (Isabelle Adjani) earns the admiration of famed nineteenth century artist August Rodin (Gérard Depardieu). She joins his studio as an apprentice and the pair soon share a torrid love affair. When Rodin refuses to marry Camille, they seperate and she tragically degenerates into an embittered, self-destructive recluse.
Winner of five César awards including a third Best Actress prize for Isabelle Adjani (who has since gone on to win twice more, making her the most decorated recipient in French cinema), this impassioned period biopic was evidently a personal project for its lustrous star, who co-produced and hired her onetime lover, celebrated cinematographer Bruno Nuytten, to co-write and direct. It is possible Adjani indentified certain character traits she had in common with the tempestuous Camille, notably a tendency to commit wholeheartedly to her art at the risk of her own mental stability. For some this was little more than a vanity project, two hours plus of Adjani swooning over sculptures and suffering in photogenic close-ups, all tousled and gorgeous. As a tragic love story the film is none too different from those Hollywood was making forty years prior, but there is real dramatic weight here thanks to combustible chemistry between two great actors and the script co-adapted (from her own book) by Reine-Marie Paris (granddaughter of Camille’s brother, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel) that paints an unsettling portrait of a young woman who opened herself to art and came away, seemingly, irretrievably damaged.
Camille Claudel is not a film for anyone cynical about the power of art to inflame our passions or drive people beyond the brink of obsession and madness. Whereas Depardieu plays Rodin as someone who is almost fatally indecisive, in his politics and personal life, Adjani portrays Camille as a woman who rails against adversity and strives to seize control of her destiny, the way she grapples with clay. Yet though the film aptly admonishes her cruel mother (Madeleine Robertson) who never misses a chance to deride her daughter, there is something of the unwitting femme fatale about Camille. Wilful, demanding yet determined to be seen as a martyr, she captivates not just Rodin but her own father (Alain Cuny) and brother (Laurent Grévill), with whom she shares a chaste but almost incestuous infatuation, draining both men of their energy and resources. Art is a vampire, the film seems to suggest, that mesmerises but saps life from the artist and those around them. However, none pay as high a price as Camille herself. Breaking away from Rodin and indulging a brief affair with composer Claude Debussy (Maxime Leroux), she struggles to establish herself away from his shadow, despite her significant contributions to his artwork. Cloistered away in a room with her sculptures and cats, she grows increasingly paranoid and filled with self-pity and even scuppers her own comeback by arriving at an exhibition, caked in makeup like some garish madwoman.
As one would expect of Nuytten, the film is beautifully shot with exquisite lighting and inventive camerawork, but reaches beyond the postcard prettiness of most period dramas. Instead, Nuytten evokes a tactile, sensual realm where sculpted artworks slowly come alive before our eyes in blizzards of marble. The opening sequence, almost dialogue-free, where Camille sneaks outside to steal clay segues with bleakly poetic circularity towards a finale that finds her returning her broken sculptures to the earth from whence they came, while the closing scenes - including a photograph of the real Camille incarcerated in the asylum where she lived out the last thirty years of her life, are deeply haunting. Gabriel Yared supplies a beautiful score.