By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Juliette Binoche turns 50 next year. At an age when actresses are relegated to supporting roles or safe TV duty, this Oscar-winner is distinguishing herself as perhaps the most adventurous movie star alive right now.
Not only does she work with the creme de la creme of the international director’s club (David Cronenberg, Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Olivier Assayas — and that’s just the last decade), she also lends herself to smaller projects with first-time filmmakers, and even the occasional Hollywood opus.
As a young actress, Binoche was spontaneous, almost wild. And while her features have refined into a face tautened by experience, she still has that ability to push herself into some truly dangerous places.
There’s ample evidence of this in “Camille Claudel 1915,” a tough-minded film by a difficult director, Bruno Dumont. The film takes place over the course of a few days in the winter of that year, during the incarceration of the famous artist at an insane asylum in the south of France.
Camille Claudel is known both as a talented sculptor in her own right and as the tempestuous mistress of August Rodin; after years of erratic behavior, her family institutionalized her in 1913.
In the film, Camille awaits a rare visit from her brother, Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), a famous poet and devout Catholic.
In Camille’s dispiriting rounds at the asylum, she initially seems the only sane person at the place (Dumont uses mentally impaired people as cast members, a tactic that sometimes creates fascinating ripples in Binoche’s performance).
Later, as Camille mutters about someone poisoning her food, we might wonder.
One sequence picks up Paul’s journey to see his sister, and we peer into the kind of fevered religious devotion that would lead him to write soaring poetry and also keep his sister securely put away. At one point he suspects his own wild streak would be loose if he hadn’t found Catholicism.
As a woman sidelined during a period of male domination of the art world, Claudel has frequently been championed as a feminist heroine. A previous biopic, “Camille Claudel” (1988), took that reading and gave Isabelle Adjani a workout (and an Oscar nomination).
Dumont has taken an unsparingly dour look at humankind in his previous movies, including “The Life of Jesus,” which isn’t about the life of Jesus, and “Twentynine Palms.”
This one’s in a mournful key. “Camille Claudel 1915” builds to a crucial series of exchanges that can fairly be called devastating, and even where the movie remains opaque, there is Binoche to add humanity.
She also brings — as the character of Claudel requires — genius. Maybe you can’t act that, but she brings it.
“Camille Claudel 1915” (three stars)
Juliette Binoche turns in a typically powerful performance as the talented sculptor (and onetime mistress of Auguste Rodin), seen here enduring a few days during her incarceration at an insane asylum. The film is difficult, but builds to a devastating series of encounters. In French, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, subject matter.
Showing: SIFF Film Center.