Director: Martin Provost
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Cherchez la femme. And so France seems to be. In 2007, La Vie en Rose (La Môme), a biopic about troubled singer Édith Piaf, won a boatload of Césars, France’s Academy Award. Last year, it was Séraphine, a biopic about troubled primitive artist Séraphine Louis, also known in the art world as Séraphine of Senlis, the town where she lived and worked. Séraphine was pushing 50 by the time art critic and dealer Wilhelm Uhde discovered her in 1912. He barely had a chance to encourage her before he had to flee France to escape reprisals from both French and German troops at the start of World War I. He rediscovered her in 1927. After a promising reception for her work and a blush of prosperity to ease her meager existence as a housekeeper, Séraphine’s fortunes again went south when the Great Depression killed the art market. A lifelong mental imbalance became a full psychotic break in the early 1930s. Séraphine died in a mental institution in 1942, her paintbrush long idle.
While there is no shortage of crazy/tormented artist biopics, the novelty of Séraphine is that the artist it considers is relatively obscure today. For now, the vogue in primitive art (see In the Realm of the Unreal or Junebug for recent examples) has benefited Séraphine Louis, bringing her eerie, obsessively rendered depictions of flowers, fruit, and leaves to light for new generations in France and for those in other countries who are lucky enough to attend a screening of this film. Unfortunately, despite its triumph at the César Awards, Séraphine has not gotten a lot of buzz; this unusual, self-taught artist might return to relative obscurity—if she emerges at all in the first place—in most of the world. But for now, the spotlight is turned her way with a film that is both illuminating and illuminated from within by the committed performance of Yolande Moreau in the title role.
Like Séraphine herself, the film hides her unsuspected depths for quite a while. We first spot Séraphine scrubbing a wooden floor when her mistress, Mme Duphot (Geneviève Mnich), tells her to open the shutters on the first floor for a new tenant. We move from a close-up of a brush moving across a bald and spotless floor to shutters opening one by one. A portrait is removed from the wall.
The new tenant, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), examines his new surroundings with his sister Anne-Marie (Anne Bennent). The next day, Uhde is awakened by unexpected noises in the kitchen. Séraphine is cleaning on orders of Mme Duphot. Surprised but not displeased, Uhde asks her to finish up and pays her the 10 sous she asks. For some time, we follow both Séraphine and Uhde as they go about their work—Uhde writing an essay about Picasso based on a portfolio of drawings he owns and Séraphine beating laundry on the riverbank, cleaning homes, and working in a butcher’s shop where she fills a small bottle with blood. She goes to church, and praying and doing the equivalent of winking at God, blows out several votive candles and pours the turpentine fuel into a bottle. Later, she goes through a meadow tearing at wild flowers to put in her basket. It is only later that we see her grind the flowers into a powder and mix it with her other collected ingredients to form paint. She sits, illuminated by candlelight, and forms circles on a board with her fingers.
These routines continue and expand until Mme Duphot rather improbably asks Séraphine to bring a painting of hers for Madame, a member of the local art society, to evaluate. She dismisses the painting as odd and places it under a table. When Madame asks Uhde to dine with the art committee, he reluctantly agrees. Bored at first, he spies Séraphine’s painting and buys it on the spot. Séraphine, no longer a mere servant, becomes his new discovery. Séraphine develops an attachment to Uhde, becoming jealous of Anne-Marie until she learns they are siblings. “I will never marry a woman,” is reassurance to Séraphine and the only signal we get that Uhde is homosexual. When he has to flee France, Séraphine is distraught and tries to extract a promise from him that he will return. He tells Séraphine to work hard to develop her gift.
We meet up with Uhde and Séraphine again 13 years later. Uhde rents a home in Chantilly with his sister and lover Helmut Kolle (Nico Rogner), a painter. Convinced that Séraphine has died, he nonetheless checks out an art show in Senlis, where he comes face to face with two large canvasses that bear witness to Séraphine’s continued existence and amazing progress as an artist. Séraphine, old, haggard, living on charity, yet still relentless in pursuing her art, accepts Uhde’s return as nearly inevitable. After a short period of prosperity, Séraphine loses Uhde’s patronage to the market downturn and soon also loses her mind.
Emotion is in short supply in this film. Tukur plays Uhde as an important man who doesn’t wear that importance on his sleeve. He mainly wants to be left alone, hence his move to small-town France from Paris. He is gracious and quiet, somewhat troubled, and ultimately businesslike in his handling of his protege, which is more realistic than the usual codependent relationships that are normally found in films such as this. Rogner has a small role, but with a single look, he shows the resentment of a lifetime when Uhde tells an ailing Helmut to move from his bed to the guest bed because people are coming to call. Bennent portrays a loving sister with the kind of knowing playfulness that balances her brother’s melancholy. When they must flee their rented digs in Senlis, she sees Uhde look despairingly at his collected canvasses and quickly pulls one from the stack—a Rousseau—to help him leave the rest behind. It is small moments like this that elevate this film from formulaic biopic to a believable life story.
The portrayal of a simple, yet complicated character like Séraphine is not an easy job; indeed, Séraphine seems borderline autistic for most of the film. Yet Moreau somehow finds a way. Her Séraphine is not exactly sympathetic—she’s childish, brusque, a figure who causes unease in Uhde and in us with her undercurrent of madness. Yet, she is, literally, a tree hugger, a person who delights in seeing the sun filter through leaves, an observer who tries to help others, as when she helps conceal Madame’s son’s affair with the chambermaid from his mother. She never becomes self-pitying when she becomes too old to make a living, but she also doesn’t thank those who give her money and food. If anything, she goes further inward, toward God and the art her guardian angel commanded her to make.
There are some awkward moments in the film. In a really odd scene, Anne-Marie looks at one of Séraphine’s paintings and asks her if she was ever in love. Séraphine says she was and still thinks about her soldier, hoping that if she’s thinking about him that he might be thinking about her. I still don’t know what that was all about. Another misstep was to have Séraphine wearing the same clothes throughout the movie. As poor as she was, it simply strains credulity that she wouldn’t get anything else to wear for 13 years. And the removal of the portrait from the wall near the beginning of the film, deliberately shot as some sort of cue to the audience, goes nowhere.
While not everything works and the tone is rather subdued, Séraphine truly is a fine achievement. Provost directs his wonderful cast skillfully to bring subtlety to a subgenre overburdened with histrionics. It’s certainly not easy to convey the religious experience that creation often is, but Provost and Moreau pull it off spectacularly well.