Directed by Martin Provost
Written by Martin Provost and Marc Abdelnour
Starring: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Genevieve Mnich, Nico Rogner
Run Time: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Séraphine was France’s equivalent to Slumdog Millionaire at last year’s French Academy Awards. A relatively modest film, it gained momentum, galvanized a nation, and became a sleeper hit that swept the awards, grabbing Césars in almost all the major categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and a Best Actress award for Yolande Moreau, as Séraphine.
But comparisons end there. Whereas Hollywood decided to celebrate a film that represents the globalization of film culture, the French chose to honor their own. And there is no doubt of Séraphine’s heritage. The film is very, very French, in the way it is filmed—in its deliberate pacing and elegant style—and in its content. A French painter of the naïve style, Séraphine de Senlis may not have been a household name in France before this biopic came out, but she surely is now. The film Séraphine pays homage to an artist whose initial fame was fleeting, and in so doing, revitalizes the work and gives recognition to her as a visionary artist of the early 20th century.
Still, whether the renewed recognition is deserved or not, the story itself is fascinating. The life of Séraphine Louis, a peasant worker just barely eking out a living in the small town of Senlis, near the forest of Chantilly, is an intriguing study of how mental illness and environmental impositions shape the creative spirit. Hunched over laundry and scrubbing floors by day, Séraphine hunches over wooden panels in her tiny chambre de bonne by night, painting intricately woven, replicating designs of flowers while singing hymns to the Virgin Mary, her guardian angel and the spirit who guides her.
Séraphine’s extreme poverty, her obsessive and secret nighttime activity, the abundant influence of the Catholic religion on her life, and even her mental illness, is rendered so subtly that we are not aware of how we got to the point of knowing all this. The film unfolds with so little exposition, in fact, that it’s almost a shock when we find out the German troops are descending on the town of Senlis, and the beginning of World War I puts our heroine squarely in an historical context.
The same cannot be said of the film’s recreation of Séraphine’s relationship with Wilhelm Uhde, the German art collector who recognized and encouraged her talent. Séraphine became his cleaning woman during a brief stay in Senlis, before he had to flee France as the Germans entered the town. After the war, Uhde again settles in a nearby town, and his patronage resumes. It is during this brief period that Séraphine’s artistic output flourishes, her sudden brush with fame and wealth derails her, and then the mighty hand of the Great Depression brings Europe to its knees again, and Séraphine to a bewildered state that finally culminates in a descent into madness.
The film bogs down in its need to impart the necessary historical details, the external footprints that take us, and Séraphine, out of her ecstatic reverie and into the real world of cause and effect. Perhaps in an effort to remain subtle and be brief, director Martin Provost lends too pedantic a hand to the prosaic task. Scenes that reveal Uhde’s homosexuality, his relationship with his sister, and Séraphine’s final days before being committed to an asylum, feel out of place in an otherwise imagistic film that tries so eloquently to find entry into the mystical realm.
Séraphine is at its best when Mr. Provost wisely dwells on the film’s texture, on the sensual nature of its visuals, and Yolande Moreau’s effervescent performance as Séraphine. It is these scenes that lift this film above the level of a conventional biopic. We are, in a sense, made privy to the very reverie, that state of almost beatific hypnosis, where artists find sanctuary and which compels them to create. For Séraphine, it is the beauty of nature that she clings to in order to keep her sane, and it is the earth and its bounty where she finds the resources to mix the special potions she uses as paint. Séraphine lingers on these scenes of magic, indulging in moments when Séraphine’s hand reaches into a flowing river, when she uses her fingers to swirl paint on canvas, or when she climbs a tree to bask in the sensual painting that her God has created all around her.
A Belgian actress well versed in the theatrical arts, and already lauded for her work as star and writer of the 2003 film Quand la mer monte (When The Tide Comes In), Yolande Moreau has in middle age found a niche in French cinema as a character actress. Her bulk, her age, and lack of physical beauty lend themselves to such roles, but it is that same face’s marvelous ability to express the comedic, the melancholic and the knowing with such mesmerizing exactitude that makes us want to look at her forever. She’s a magnificent actress, and her performance as Séraphine is a gift, to her and to us.
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