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Clunky French Camille Claudel gets stuck in Hollywood

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CAMILLE CLAUDEL

Directed by Bruno Nuytten.

Written by Bruno Nuytten and Marilyn Goldin.

Based on the biography of Camille Claudel by Reine-Marie Paris.

Starring Isabelle Adjani, G'erard Depardieu, and Laurent Grevill.

Now playing at the Coolidge Corner.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

ALTHOUGH CAMILLE CLAUDEL The film begins in 1885 when Camille Claudel is a fledgling 20-year-old sculptress who has to sneak out before dawn to collect the clay she needs to practice her art. She meets with, is apprenticed to, and falls in love with Auguste Rodin (G'erard Depardieu), who was renowned in his day both as a great sculptor and as a seducer of young women.

As time goes by, Claudel's starry-eyed admiration for Rodin turns to disquiet and then anger as she concludes that Rodin is winning acclaim and money by passing off her work as his own. When Rodin refuses to marry Claudel (who unbeknownst to him is pregnant with his child), Claudel has a severe falling out. She retreats into a reclusive existence and slowly disintegrates in her isolation. Claudel eventually goes mad with paranoia and is committed to a mental asylum by her family in 1913. She spends the remaining days of her life in asylums, and dies in 1943, her art largely unknown and forgotten.

Claudel's story clearly has a tremendous amount of dramatic potential, so one is pressed to wonder why the film falls so flat. Perhaps this has to do with the choppy editing and the scattershot narrative structure. In its shallow characterization and uninspired acting, the film distances itself from Claudel's story at the same time that it distances viewers from its characters. The result is an unsatisfactory, uncompelling film.

The only actor who rises above the perfunctory nature of the role handed to him is G'erard Depardieu, who plays Rodin with a much-needed sense of down-to-earth believability. But his presence is simply not enough to raise the film from its doldrums -- especially considering that the script writes Rodin out of the picture about two-thirds of the way through the film.

Another lost opportunity comes with the character of Claudel's brother Paul (Laurent Grevill), who for most of his life sympathized with Claudel, but was also one of two family members to commit her to a mental asylum. Paul must have been plagued by doubts over that act for the rest of his life, because a few years before his death in 1955, he wrote in his diary, "Always the same taste of ashes in my mouth when I think of her."

For her part, Claudel was always tender toward her younger brother. The film, however, never gets around to exploring the depth of the dynamic underlying Paul and Camille's relationship.

A different problem plagues the secondary characters who, on a number of occasions, are introduced and then left behind without much indication of how they are relevant to Claudel's story. All of these people were important to Claudel's life in one way or another, but the film does not even come close to exploring their influence on her. One could argue that this is an act of deliberate understatement, but in the hands of director Bruno Nuytten the techniques just lead to a general muddle.

The film seems caught between a desire to explore Claudel's art on the one hand, and to depict the drama of her life's story on the other -- and ends up doing justice to neither. Perhaps the fault lies equally with the absurdities of the script as with the inexperience of the director: This is Bruno Nuytten's first film as director.

Not surprisingly (Nuytten was a cinematographer prior to this film), there are some scenes in Camille Claudel The only remaining surprise about Camille Claudel As a result of all these factors, Nuytten's debut film leaves much to be desired even as it introduces many Americans to a remarkable personality and artist. It seems a shame that of all the efforts to bring Claudel out of obscurity, the contribution of this film is the weakest. It also seems strange that instead of being carried away to a foreign country while watching the film, an American viewer is reminded in so many ways of Hollywood and its typically homogenized product. That realization is the most troubling aspect of the film, and that is what should be foremost on Nuytten's list of things to consider as he begins to ponder his next film project.