The adored French actress tells why she's so inspired by the legendary sculptor and what it was like working on Fred Schepisi's new film, Words & Pictures.
11 Nov 2013 - 2:48 PM  UPDATED 11 Nov 2013 - 2:48 PM

Juliette Binoche is always on the lookout for something new and dangerous, and at 49, she remains as brave as ever. Although beautifully preserved in real life, she looks positively haggard in close-up in her new movie, Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel, 1915, which is set over three days during the French sculptor's later years in a mental asylum. While Binoche regains her usual radiance in her more recent offering, Fred Schepisi's romance, Words & Pictures, her art instructor suffers with rheumatoid arthritis. A painter herself, Binoche created all of her character's paintings during the seven-week shoot.

She wanted to be independent in a culture where there was no space for a woman

Her first Hollywood blockbuster aside—she plays the mother of Aaron Taylor-Johnson's lead protagonist in next year's Godzilla—Binoche tends to pitch ideas to directors she wants to work with, or at least she contacts the contenders herself. In the past, French minimalist Dumont had only worked with unknowns or non-actors and is hardly taken with anyone telling him what to do. Yet, when La Binoche called, he couldn't resist.

“I really admire Bruno's films and a year and a half ago I went to see him,” Binoche recalls. “When we started to discuss the film, he told me how he wanted me to improvise, so I insisted on working with a coach for two weeks beforehand—or there was no way I would do it!” she cackles. “Now I want to work with him again.”

Written by Dumont, the screenplay is based on correspondence between Camille and her younger brother Paul, a poet, dramatist and diplomat, and is set two years after Camille's internment, when Paul comes to visit with the decision regarding whether she can leave the asylum. By all accounts, Camille was not mentally ill, just a little unhinged and paranoid after the demise of her long affair with sculptor Auguste Rodin and her doubts regarding herself as an artist.

“With paranoia, often the subject of love becomes the subject of hate and Camille had moments of crisis,” Binoche notes. “Before she went to the asylum, she was putting chains around herself so people couldn't come and take her away. She was this amazing, talented woman, full of life, full of will and she ended up spending 30 years in an asylum in terrible conditions. It was worse than a prison and she was living in the cold. The cruelty of her family was incredible. She was abandoned—that for me was the worst thing.”

There had already been a hugely successful 1988 romantic costume drama, Bruno Nuytten's Camille Claudel, starring Isabel Adjani (who was nominated for an Oscar) and with Gerard Depardieu as Rodin. That film's scenario finished long before Camille languished away in the asylum and before her death at age 78 from malnutrition-related issues. She has since become a poster girl for female artists, particularly in France.

“The film raises a lot of questions about society, about men, about herself, about creation,” says Binoche. “As a teenager I was totally inspired by her because of her need of creating, because of her fire. She wanted to be independent in a culture where there was no space for a woman, so I think she was very brave and she paid the cost. Nowadays, it's possible for women to be sculptors because of those experiences before.”

Binoche explains how she first “plugged in” to Camille when she saw Anne Delbee's play Camille Claudel: Une Femme at the age of 16.

“That was long before the film with Adjani,” she notes. “The actress was naked and it was very strong for me, daring, and very raw. I loved the passion of Adjani but you really felt there was a need to tell this other side of Camille's story as well.

“I am deeply touched by Bruno's film; it will stay with me forever. He has a way of shooting a face like a landscape and it allows you not to be manipulated. It's as if he's shooting nature. I have a nostalgia for Dreyer and Tarkovsky, and because I can't shoot with them, I want to go to directors who allow this space in me.”

After filming wrapped last year, Binoche performed Strindberg's Miss Julie on the London stage. “Can you imagine?” she chortles, “and I didn't have a break. But one desperate woman nourishes another desperate woman.”

She notes that at one point she was “supposed” to make two films in Australia, with Rachel Ward and Kim Farrant (who now is set to make her directing debut with Nicole Kidman in Strangerland). Instead, she worked with Schepisi in Vancouver on Words & Pictures, where she plays an art instructor to Clive Owen's English teacher.

“The film's about the battle of two intellectual equals, two frustrated artists going through a midlife crisis”, explains Binoche. “The script was kind of fun. It's different from what I've done; it's like some kind of holiday.”

Even so, she approached the film with her usual intensity. “Fred's wife Mary is a painter and we worked together deciding how to express the character's frustration and finding ways of allowing her to express herself.”

Schepisi does not like to repeat himself and with Words & Pictures, he injected a burst of fresh air to the Toronto festival program. At the festival, he told how his aim was to take “all the conventions of the romantic comedy and turn them on their head”. Rather than using "the standard rom-com smart remarks," he focused on the characters' real emotions and struggles to create situations he could manipulate and have fun with.

“One of the terrific things is that Clive had desperately wanted to work with Juliette for a long time and Juliette had wanted to work with Clive and you could see from their first meeting that they were going to get on with each other. They work a bit differently, which is good, and if something went wrong they wouldn't gripe, they'd just burst into laughter.”

Most importantly, they came prepared even if Schepisi didn't realise the extent of Binoche's skills as a painter.

“It was a nice bonus because you don't have to fake anything. She was changing the way she paints, speaking English with an American accent and staying up all night preparing the paintings and doing it on camera.”

Camille Claudel, 1915 will be in cinemas in 2014. Words & Pictures has yet to announce its release date. Fred Schepisi will be the subject of a retrospective at the Brisbane International Film Festival this year. Click here for information.