On the centenary of Auguste Rodin’s death, Jacques Doillon delivers a useful educational tool for the armchair traveler too lazy to go to a museum. Or read a book. “Rodin” could also be watched as prep work before going to the Musée Rodin, a partner in the film’s production. What it’s not so good for is a cinema audience expecting more than a plodding two-hour lesson in the artist’s life. Given Doillon’s recent films (“Love Battles”), one could have imagined this would have more flesh pounding than clay kneading, but no, his “Rodin” is a meticulously reverential, handsomely lit and very dull biopic about the 19th century’s most revolutionary sculptor. Given the artist’s cachet among culture vultures, it’s likely some art houses will book a limited run, but reviews won’t be positive.
Those retaining fond memories of Bruno Nuytten’s “Camille Claudel” will be curious to see how Doillon reimagines Rodin and the central relationship in his life (apart from clay), yet “Rodin” largely reinforces the earlier film’s story, shifting perspective of course but without significantly changing any of the personality traits — except Vincent Lindon’s Rodin is less egotistical than Gérard Depardieu’s. At least the 1988 film told a good story, with a sense of flow, whereas Doillon presents episodes in the sculptor’s life, separated by deadening black screens.
Three elements take center stage: his relationship with Claudel (Izïa Higelin, “Summertime”), his work on the monumental Gates of Hell project, and the all-consuming obsession with his Balzac statue. At the film’s start, Claudel is already in the master’s studio as a prize assistant and lover. Though Rodin was well-known for sleeping with his models and pupils, his pairing with Claudel was the only affair to threaten the stability of his non-traditional common-law marriage to Rose (Séverine Caneele), a stolid country woman whose involvement with his artistic career was long past. Claudel chafes at her lover’s inability to commit and bristles at being overshadowed by his fame, until she flees from under his shadow and gradually loses her mind (vaguely implied but not seen).
Meanwhile, he’s continually at work on his great Balzac statue, a work famously derided when first presented — Oscar Wilde (not quoted in the film) described it as “the leonine head of a fallen angel, with a dressing gown.” And about that dressing gown: Doillon includes an unintentionally hilarious “Eureka!” moment when Rodin, contemplating his statue’s nakedness, grabs an overcoat, tosses it in a bucket of wet plaster, drapes it over the paunchy form, and voilà, a masterpiece is born. The director clearly read far too many books about his subject before writing his script, but was this particular episode ever described thus?
At least that scene shows part of the artistic process, as opposed to the constant stream of ridiculously didactic lines tossed out by all the famous people in Rodin’s circle. Victor Hugo (Bernard Verley) isn’t just glimpsed but overheard saying something profound — this isn’t a Mike Leigh “Turner” sort of film seeking to uncover the runny-nosed man-of-the-earth who crafts sublime masterpieces. Rather, this is hagiography looking to educate. Rodin to Cézanne (Arthur Nauzyciel): “Stay strong!” Rodin to Monet (Olivier Cadiot): “You helped me understand light!” Name dropping runs amok, and why exactly bring Rainer Maria Rilke (Anders Danielsen Lie) into the picture when all he does is explain the Biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife? It may be edifying to read, but it’s stultifying to watch.
Lindon’s physical solidity is impressive. He holds himself like a great hunk of clay, thick and dense and rooted to the ground, making this seem like even more of a wasted opportunity when considering what could have been done with a Rodin biopic. Visiting the major exhibition currently on in Paris would be far more insightful. Higelin has an innocence about her, a directness and simplicity in the early scenes that happily normalizes Claudel; only later do the neuroses start to take hold of her fragile mind. Other actors perform their roles with gravitas except the artist’s models, all tediously giggly or, in the case of Gwen John (Olivia Baes), here called Mary, quivering with sexual excitement when near the master.
Much of the shooting was done in the actual locations, with production designer Katia Wyszkop doing a commendable job making it all look perfect on screen. Rodin’s studios are artfully filled with carefully arranged plaster casts, a serendipitous mirror placed to show multiple sides of the statues. Strong, white lighting sets everyone off in a flawless theatrical glow when natural light isn’t enough, and Christophe Beaucarne’s loving cinematography ensures this has “prestige” written all over.