Séraphine (Music Box Films, NR)

film_seraphine_sm.jpgWe see only glimpses of Séraphine’s paintings, but they are sufficient that we understand what made them so powerful and sometimes frightening as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing in the life of Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau) suggested that she would become a world-class painter. Daughter of a manual laborer and housewife, both of whom died before she was eight years old, she worked as a domestic servant in turn-of-the-century France. Séraphine was also troubled by mental illness and remained isolated from her neighbors in the small village of Senlis. (She is often known today as Séraphine de Senlis.)

Yet she had a natural talent for art, which she pursued when her day’s work was done. In one of those strokes of luck upon which lives can turn, the art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Rukur) sees one of her paintings at a neighbor’s house. An early champion of Picasso and the primitive painter Henri Rousseau, Uhde recognizes her raw talent and becomes her patron. Besides his professional interest in her art, he may be motivated by the fact that they are both isolated outsiders, she by her poverty and mental illness, he by his German nationality and homosexuality (the latter is underplayed in the film).

Her story is told in Martin Provost’s film Séraphine, which won seven Césars (French Academy Awards) in 2009, including Best Film. It’s an extremely patient, low-key film which allows Séraphine’s story to unfold at a human pace and avoids glamorizing the principal subject or her world. Moreau’s Séraphine is sloppy and stubborn, eccentric at best and insane at worst. Her work is hard and the other villagers can be petty and cruel. But she continues to paint, producing large-scale still-lifes with a frightening intensity fueled by religious fervor and madness.

Séraphine Louis eventually exhibited paintings in Paris and New York and enjoyed a period of prosperity before the Great Depression but a crimp in the art business and mental illness forced her into an institution. She died alone and was buried in a pauper’s grave. To Provost’s great credit, he imposes no moral or conclusion on the story: Séraphine’s art, religious fervor and mental breakdowns are all accepted as facts which may be witnessed but not explained.

Excellent location cinematography by Laurent Brunet and production design by Thierry François convincingly recreates France of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We see only glimpses of Séraphine’s paintings, but they are sufficient that we understand what made them so powerful and sometimes frightening as well. All the actors are excellent, but Moreau carries the film. She’s not afraid to play Séraphine as completely unglamorous and often crazed, yet also manages to engage our sympathies for this talented and difficult woman. | Sarah Boslaugh

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