Here in New York, both the Met and the MoMA have casts of Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac. It must be among the few common pieces held in both collections, but it makes sense both museums would want it. It is commonly referred to as the first truly modern sculpture, but the contemporary reaction was far less laudatory. The evolution of the iconic work becomes the central narrative line of Jacques Doillon’s Rodin (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
In 1880, Rodin is already recognized in many quarters as a master, but not by French society universally. Life is not bad. He has received a game-changing commission in The Gates of Hell and his relationship with his protégé-lover Camille Claudel has not turned completely toxic yet. Unfortunately, that will change in a few short years. Rodin will also receive the Balzac commission that will inspire and frustrate him for years to come.
Claudel has been the subject of two previous films, Bruno Nuytten’s 1986 Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel,1915, starring Juliette Binoche, so it is time Rodin got some equal time. Although Vincent Lindon hardly portrays him as a saint, Doillon’s screenplay clearly suggests Claudel was severely emotionally disturbed and Rodin went to considerable lengths to support her. Meanwhile, the philistines kept hounding him for a conventionally idolized statue of Balzac.
Lindon is quite forceful as Rodin, nicely conveying both his rough-hewn working-class roots and his artistic sensibilities (for lack of a better term). Initially, he looks rather craggy for a forty-year-old, but people aged quicker in the 19th Century. He also develops some rather complicated but surprisingly warm chemistry with Séverine Caneele as his rustic common law wife, Rose Beuret. Contemporary critics might find her simple devotion troubling, but it is historically accurate (and again, the 19th Century was an entirely different era, especially for a middle-aged woman with limited resources). Likewise, Claudel gets no PR favors from Doillon’s treatment. Izïa Higelin is an underwhelming screen presence opposite Lindon—and inevitable comparisons to Adjani and Binoche will not do her any favors either.
There are some beautiful moments in Rodin, such as his lunch with his Modernist colleagues, in which he bucks up the spirits of a dejected Cézanne, briefly but memorably played by Arthur Nauzyciel. However, there is no getting around the stately slowness of Doillon’s pacing. If you want to soak up the details of Rodin’s meticulously recreated studio than this film will be your heart’s desire, but if you want brisk scandal, go back to Nuytten. (Also, at the risk of sounding like a goody-two-shoes, there is a ridiculously gratuitous sex scene, but perhaps it helps maintain Doillon’s provocative reputation.)
Regardless, Doillon’s Rodin will give most viewers a greater appreciation of the vision and sweat equity that went into the artist’s remarkable body of work, which cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne often frames in suitably dramatic ways. Recommended for serious admirers of the artist and lead actor, Rodin opens this Friday (6/1) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.