'Rodin': Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Hit the Rodin, Jacques.

Cannes best actor winner Vincent Lindon stars in this biopic by veteran auteur Jacques Doillon, which premiered in competition on the Croisette.

The magnificent sculptures of Auguste Rodin evoke feelings of passion, ecstasy, deep suffering, intense thought and perhaps above all, perpetual movement — as if they’re continuous works-in-progress that have been temporarily frozen in time.

It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that this new biopic by veteran French director Jacques Doillon often feels as stiff and lifeless as an old slab of marble. Starring Vincent Lindon (The Measure of a Man), who gives a physically imposing performance undercut by the film’s array of risible, borderline insufferable dialogue, Rodin at best provides insight into the great artist’s working methods, with the production design team convincingly recreating some of his most famous pieces.

But at worst, this stagy succession of scenes — many involving the sculptor’s spats and sexcapades with his doomed mistress Camille Claudel (Izia Higelin) — is a lumbering affair that never builds into a gripping, let alone complex, portrait of the man or his time. A Croisette competition premiere and the reputation of Cannes Best Actor laureate Lindon should slightly boost the pic’s profile abroad, with a French release set for late May and co-producer Cohen Media Group distributing in the U.S.

Per the press notes, Doillon — whose oeuvre over the last decade has seriously waned compared to his best work (The Little Gangster, Touched in the Head, Ponette) — was originally asked to make two documentaries on Rodin that would coincide with the centennial of the artist’s death. But the more research he did, the more Doillon was drawn into directing a fictional account. The result is a movie that does pay close attention to Rodin’s methods (apparently Lindon trained for months as a real sculptor), but otherwise feels like many of Doillon’s recent gab-fests (Love Battles, A Child of Yours, The Three-Way Wedding), where characters fight and fornicate and say lots of pretentious things to each other that you only ever hear in a French film.

Set initially in 1880, when Rodin turned 40 and received his first public commission to create his famous unfinished portal The Gates of Hell, the story follows the burly genius over roughly three decades, even though he doesn’t seem to age at all. During that period, we see the artist at work on several masterpieces at once, from The Burghers of Calais to The Kiss to portraits of literary giants Victory Hugo and Honoré de Balzac — the latter piece which occupied nearly a decade of Rodin’s life.

When he’s not using his fingers to shape clay, Rodin often has them all over his lover and most promising assistant, Camille Claudel, who entices the man with her youth, sensuality and artistic prowess. The stormy affair between the two was already chronicled in Bruno Nuytten’s excellent 1988 biopic of Claudel — its disturbing aftermath was shown in Bruno Dumont’s 2013 film Camille Claudel 1915 — and here it drags on for several reels as Rodin finds himself torn between his true love/creative accomplice and his longtime companion/hausfrau Rose Beuret (Severine Caneele).

But it’s hard to understand how either woman can take much of Rodin when he’s spouting some of Doillon’s lines — whether he’s using them to entice Claudel while touching a sculpted torso (“…all that flesh, tormented by desire…”), venting his frustration at his patrons (“If only they’d let me work with my heart, which yearns to make a masterpiece”), summing up his relationship issues (“As artists we’re masterpieces, but as humans we’re pathetic”), or pontificating to Rainer Maria Rilke (Anders Danielsen Lie) as they visit a church (“This stony solitude…can express so much”).

Rodin may be good with his hands, but you kind of wish he’d shut his mouth every once in a while. Not that this is necessarily the fault of Lindon, who’s rather perfect for the role with his massive forearms, intense gaze and the way he seems to be constantly sculpting everything and everyone with his mind. Indeed, the film’s strongest scenes reveal Rodin laboring hard in his studio, sketching, molding and applying plaster, with production designer Katia Wyszkop doing an excellent job showing all the stages that any single piece would go through before being completed.

But the rest of the movie tries to dramatize Rodin’s life to no avail, with a series of wooden and rather ridiculous domestic scenes, quick cameos by some of France’s most famous artists and writers (Cezanne, Monet, Zola, Mirbeau), and, to further Doillon’s string of kink in recent years, at least one threesome. It’s all quite dull and belabored despite the immense passion Rodin is shown putting into his work (as well as into his sex life), and ultimately the sculptor comes across as too much of a windbag to allow his creations to speak for themselves. For a film meant to champion the powers of three-dimensional art, Rodin winds up being awfully flat.  

Production companies: Les Films du Lendemain, Artemis Productions
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Izia Higelin, Severine Caneele, Bernard Verley, Anders Danielsen Lie, Olivier Cadiot, Arthur Nauzyciel
Director-screenwriter: Jacques Doillon
Producer: Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Frederic Fichefet
Composer: Philippe Sarde
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
119 minutes