Let’s give it this much: Jacques Doillon’s tough-sit, sex-life-of-the-artist boob-a-palooza looks great, especially in its opening moments. Rodin’s first scene, an arresting long take, finds the great sculptor Auguste Rodin (Vincent Lindon) thinking in his wide cinder block of a studio, scheming out a great work that would take him decades to complete: The Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The hands and heads of the damned — sculpted by students and assistants — surround him. As those students and assistants bustle through, the scene and the screen pulse with a convincing sense of place, a sense that we’re glimpsing a first-rate rendition of what it might truly have been like. It’s the kind of sequence that might give you hope for virtual reality technology: What if we could pause the story of Rodin and instead just wander around in its world?
The story kicks in before that shot cuts off. Rodin marches to a side room, where a young woman, his student, is toiling. It’s clear, immediately, that the woman — Camille Claudel (Izia Higelin) — is also his lover, and that their relationship is as prickly as it is passionate. What’s less clear, at first, is that she is gripped by her own genius, a fact the film’s only tangentially interested in. It really doesn’t care, much, about what women do with their clothes on.
Unlike Bruno Nuytten’s Camille Claudel, Doillon’s film only shows us Claudel as Rodin knew her: as the one lump of clay or flesh he can’t shape himself. Other than the sets and facsimiles of sculptures, Higelin is the most engaging thing in Rodin, its heat and its heart. Her Claudel at first is all eagerness and promise, dancing high-spirited rings around her older, often inexpressive lover. She’s electric, hilarious, and you’ll likely not doubt for a moment why he spends the next years of his life moping over her once the affair goes sour. You might mope, too, when she’s suddenly gone from the movie — when we’re left to regard the miserable moments of a miserable man. She leaves for many reasons, the most interesting being her desire to be recognized for her own art, which inspires the best scene here: She shows Rodin her sculpture The Waltz, and then the pair dance themselves, while she hums a tune. But the conflict doesn’t get developed, really. Sometimes they yell at each other, and then she’s just gone.
Too often, Rodin strands us with Rodin, wandering his studio, annoyed his work is not beloved by the public, cheering himself up by intensely regarding the naked flesh of his models. During the deadest scenes, like the one where the sad man can barely rouse himself for a workplace threesome, I kept wondering something that I’ve wondered watching HBO dramas: What inspiration does the lead dude actor find to keep passionately acting through scenes that are obviously written and shot to be all about the extras' breasts? I’m not objecting to the prevalence of nakedness in a film about an artist who made a lifelong study of nudes. But the real Rodin imbued his clay with reverent, lusty life, while Doillon merely offers a buffet of nude day players. A scene of Claudel and Rodin discussing form is much more exciting than the montage where Rodin’s models pair up and roll around on each other.