Her Painter’s Passion

Martin Provost’s Séraphine is a pleasure for the senses with a charming, fluid and highly visual cinematography

Yolande Moreaun as in Séraphine, the new French film | Photo: Milena Poylo & Gilles Sacuto

Séraphine is Martin Provost’s poignant and captivating biopic that charts periods in the life of the largely forgotten French artist Séraphine Louis, also known as Séraphine de Senlis, who died in 1942. The film was the winner of seven Cesars from the French Academy in 2009, including the award for the best film and best actress. The quietly powerful performance by Belgian actress Yolande Moreau in the title role is career defining and she indelibly captures the essence of this both ordinary and extraordinary woman’s inner life, her turmoil, her humanity and her contradictions.

Séraphine is happy and a little mad. She climbs a tree and sits in the branches in total absorption, as if the breeze is speaking to her. She walks barefoot through the grass and sifts for clay from the stream; she looks up at the sky in beatific wonder and peacefully bathes in the river.

Her skin is often coated with an earthy dusting or is ingrained from the pigments she makes from grasses and flowers.  She steals the melted wax from the church candles and siphons off some blood from a bowl of meat at the butcher shops – all to use for painting.

After climbing the stairs to her apartment, dodging her landlady, Séraphine comes to life by candlelight as she sings and paints with great energy and passion. She believes she is painting at the instigation of her guardian angel; her art is a life force, a holy act and a spiritual compulsion.

She is swept away by an irrepressible urge to create that results in vividly textured canvases of images from nature and rich fantasies of embellished floral life.

As a film, Séraphine is an immersive experience and the story takes time to unfold, detailing moments from her life. In her daily routines, she works hard, cleaning houses, washing laundry in the river and cutting meat at the butchers, to earn a few precious coins that she then spends on the painting supplies that she cannot make for herself.

“You’d be better off buying coal to get you through the winter,” mutters the shopkeeper after her.

We first encounter Séraphine in her forties. She has a great physicality about her, is heavy-set and a little stooped but always seem to march through the town of Senlis with determination, energy and purpose, the heels of her boots resounding on the cobbled streets. Séraphine is eccentric and complex, at times indifferent and at times vulnerable. She is aware of her servitude and that others underestimate her or consider her odd.

Life is changed forever when Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur – The Lives of Others/The White Ribbon) comes to live as a boarder at the house where Séraphine works as a cleaning woman. Uhde is a German art critic and the owner of a gallery in Paris and already famous as an early champion of Picasso and Braque. He prides himself in finding art in the unlikeliest of places and by chance, he glimpses one of Séraphine’s paintings. It is a still life of apples and he is immediately convinced of her genius. A moving and unexpected relationship develops between them leading to Séraphine’s work being grouped with other naive painters and the so-called “Sacred Heart Painters.”

This film is a pleasure for the senses with a charming, fluid and highly visual cinematography, seeing Séraphine walk in nature and sit under the tree, make for some of the most beautiful images in the film.

Provost builds up our knowledge of the main characters gently and richly, scene by scene. However, he rarely employs lengthy dialogue but rather allows Séraphine and Uhde to speak a thousand words through their proximity, poise or a fleeting wistful look. He builds the narrative around what he calls ‘little nothings, on what happens outside of the frame, on absences, to create little mysteries’ – this device runs throughout and we find neither the Great War that causes Uhde to flee France, nor his “secret” homosexuality overtly displayed.

There is a beautiful tender concern and unspoken communication that runs between Uhde and Séraphine. He encourages her to take a break from cleaning and places a chair out in the garden for her, insisting that she sits still. There is a very poignant parallel to this towards the end of the film when it would appear that exactly the same chair is placed outside Séraphine’s room at the sanatorium and that she takes great comfort in recognising this.

As she cleans the house around him, she is able to observe his sadness and offers him some of her ‘power wine.’ When she is sad, she says, she walks in the forest and touches the trees. She is childishly a little jealous of his companion Anne-Marie until Uhde reveals that she is his sister.

These are obsessive people with hidden aspects -”secrets”- in their lives and on some level Uhde and Séraphine identify with one another as outsiders. Séraphine lives on the edges of society and Uhde is a foreigner and a homosexual; he is the first to look at her without prejudice, and becomes her discoverer, mentor, protector and friend as well as dealer, disappearing and reappearing in her life when she seems to need him most.

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