Cannes 2017 review: Rodin (Jacques Doillon)

Rodin, the latest film by Jacques Doillon, is a curious attempt at an exploration of the creative process and the endurance of art disguised as a relatively straightforward biographical portrait of one of the most progressive and important sculptors of all time, Auguste Rodin. Doillon, whose filmography is criminally underseen, had always explored the individual as a marginalized and neglected piece of human existence, the rebellious nature of adolescence, the physical and/or emotional confinement (imprisonment) of social outcasts, the psychological consequences of broken familial bonds, the power of seduction, the primitive instinct and wild, uncontrollable sexual desire, the centrality of the couple as well as the intense physicality and carnality of love. Naturally, the tale of Auguste Rodin’s troubled and controversial life is, on paper at least, tailor-made for the sensibilities of a director like Doillon. But the results are disappointingly middling as Doillon, in spite of the unquestionable sophistication and integrity of his work, does not succeed in turning this minimalistic character study into something philosophically enlightening or characterologically revelatory.

Known for seminal works of art such as “The Thinker” (Le Penseur) and “The Kiss” (Le Baiser), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was a controversial and admittedly divisive artistic figure back in his day. His sculptures defied convention and planted the seeds of progressive contemporary art. Despite his sensitivity to the negative reactions from the artistic community, Rodin never conformed his distinctive style in order to adapt to the formulaic and decorative norms of the era. A few decades after his death, Rodin’s popularity rose significantly, while his legacy and contribution to the arts were finally acknowledged and critics and public alike declared him one of the most influential and significant progenitors of modern sculpture.

The film focuses on a certain period in Auguste Rodin’s life, after he started working on “The Gates of Hell”, a monumental sculptural group inspired by scenes from The Inferno, the first section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rodin (a well-rounded turn by Vincent Lindon whose bodily intensity and somber, grumpy visage are perfectly utilized) is awarded a commission to create a monument to French novelist Honoré de Balzac. The sculpture, displaying Balzac cloaked in a drapery, is harshly scorned by his peers and becomes the object of extensive parodies by the press. His innovative, unconventional and groundbreaking artistic approach to sculpture – he insisted on realistically depicting and celebrating the individuality and physicality of the (mortal or divine) body – is constantly criticized and undermined, causing Rodin a great deal of self-doubt and emotional fragility. Meanwhile, his affair with a young and strong-willed sculptress, Camille Claudel (played with vivacity and intelligence by Izïa Higelin), causes a great deal of pain to Rose Beuret (a beautifully earthy and restrained performance by Séverine Caneele), his longtime companion and mother of his children.

The drama is mostly confined in the dusty interiors of Rodin’s workshop, studios and country house creating, with the aid of the methodical slow-burn pacing, a suffocating sense of claustrophobia. From the piercing greyish winter light and the sight of unfinished sculptures to the scattered clay and plaster, the gorgeous art direction and cinematography lure the audience into a dreamlike reality of artistic chaos and simmering creativity.

The film’s various narrative threads, though, are never fully explored. Doillon’s fragmented approach is certainly interesting on a conceptual level, but his tendency to rely on superficial and borderline pretentious dialogue about an artist’s cultural responsibility and creative process, as well as the exasperatingly clichéd depiction of the story’s love triangle between Rodin, Claudel and Beuret, ultimately divest the film of any substance. Women are portrayed either as frivolous and mindless, eager to do anything in order to satisfy the archetypal male figure, or as insufferably hysterical and histrionic, for they cannot understand and respect the genius of the tormented male artist. The sketchy and inchoate depiction of the film’s female characters – even Camille Claudel is not properly developed – reeks of sexism and conservatism. This comes as a surprise, for Doillon had always focused – in a progressively open-minded manner – on the intricacies of the female point of view in several of his previous films. Rodin ends up being overly intellectual work without the expected acuity and cerebral sharpness, a by-the-numbers, passionless account of Rodin and Claudel’s turbulent relationship, a dry and predictable array of stereotypes.

What could have been an interesting study on the dichotomy of (somatic) kinesis and stasis, progressiveness and conformism, freedom of spirituality and earthly commitments, desire and duty, ultimately ends up being absorbed by the conventional and shockingly flat storytelling. The last scene – and highlight – of the film is set in a Japanese open-air museum in 2017; it is a serene and richly subtextual meta-narrative attempt to comment on the timelessness and endurance of art. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late.