The fiery and complicated relationship between artist Auguste Rodin (Vincent Lindon) and his gifted protégé/student/model/lover Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin) has been explored in such films as Camille Claudel, which showed their often contentious pairing from her perspective. But the latest from filmmaker Jacques Doillon (Ponette) shifts the focus to Rodin’s work, which made him a living legend thanks to major commissions that made him rich and one of an elite few artists of his time whose greatness (particularly in the field of sculpture) was acknowledged, accepted, and quite often ripped off.
Rodin centers on the years the artist worked on a massive, detailed piece inspired by Dante’s Inferno, depicting the Gates of Hell. Claudel was many things to him, but during this project hers was a voice and opinion he held very dear, since she too was a gifted artist. Her ability to see what he was going for and suggest ways to improve it not only helped better his work but turned him on.
Rodin was a known womanizer—something even his barely acknowledged wife (Severine Caneele) was powerless to stop—but Claudel held a special place in his heart, so much so that she was able to demand things of him to further her own career that no one else would dare. Depicting the artistic process in any medium is quite difficult on film, but director Doillon has a true gift for visualizing the almost symbiotic, give-and-take process that allowed both artists to do their work better.
Claudel struggled her entire career to be seen as something separate from Rodin (also, being a female artist at the time was nearly impossible), while Rodin struggled, as many artists do, with being seen as anything but a fraud and a failure. No one saw him that way, but that didn’t stop him from spending years on a piece because it was never perfect in his eyes. This is embodied in his years-long commission to create what became a revolutionary statue of the writer Balzac, which many thought was unflattering even as it captured the true spirit of the writer.
Although there is plenty of nudity (with the models as well as during Rodin’s zesty lovemaking sessions), the way the director uses the naked human form as a means of examining just how groundbreaking Rodin’s figure sculptures were at the time in capturing sensual, realistic-looking bodies is quite impressive and lovely. He also successfully finds ways of not passing judgment on Rodin and Claudel’s complex relationship. She becomes demanding about her work, while he grows increasingly more possessive of her as time goes on. They share a passion that both ignites creativity and explodes in their faces.
Rodin also offers a fascinating glimpse into the art world of the time, illustrating how artists interacted and inspired each other, as well as the unofficial hierarchy among the masters of the period. On every front, the film is a rich, detailed, epic work that drops us into a time and place and allows us to walk among artistic giants in all of their glory and depravity.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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