Seraphine, a beautiful movie about an artist

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Seraphine, the movie about the naive painter Seraphine Louis that won 7 Cesars this year (the French Oscars) is coming to Philadelphia July 17 (Ritz 5 and Bryn Mawr Film Institute). I watched a screener and have to say its a beautiful and thoughtful movie with a sad story at its core. All movies about artists should be this lovely.

Film still from Seraphine. The movie shows her walking and walking. She spent much time in nature which she loved. All photos courtesy of Music Box Films.
Film still from Seraphine. The movie shows her walking and walking. She spent much time in nature which she loved. All photos courtesy of Music Box Films.

Seraphine (1864-1942) is orphaned at age 7 and set to work as a shepherdess and domestic in a convent of nuns. At the age of 41 she has a vision of an angel who tells her to paint. As the movie opens, in 1912, she’s seen scavenging her art materials–mud from a river bed; melted wax from votive candles in church; blood from a piece of meat. She buys jars of white liquid (rabbit skin glue? lead white?) from the town stationer who tells her she’d be better off spending the sous on food.

Seraphine in a kitchen of one of the houses she cleaned. She ate food scraps given her and was creative at getting by on nothing.
Seraphine in a kitchen of one of the houses she cleaned. She ate food scraps given her and was creative at getting by on nothing.

By day, the artist works as a house cleaner and by night she paints her obsessive and colorful botanical paintings using fingers and a brush and her paints mixed from her scavenged booty.

Filmmaker Martin Provost tells the story with spare episodes that fade to black. I’m not a huge fan of the black-outs but they are quiet and go very well with the movie’s restrained storytelling; and they act as frames for the beautiful imagery of the lush French countryside and Vermeer-esque interiors.

Seraphine shows Wilhelm her paintings and he buys some. Later he will be her patron and exhibit her works in Paris.
Seraphine shows Wilhelm her paintings and he becomes her patron. Later he will exhibit her works in Paris.

The story of Seraphine and the collector, Wilhelm Uhde, who discovers her and becomes her patron, is telescoped into a small number of episodes, and, as world events buffet both of them (World War 1; the 1929 world depression) you see how these not quite ordinary people coped (or in the case of Seraphine, didn’t).

Seraphine painting by candlelight in front of the shrine to the Virgin Mary.
Seraphine painting by candlelight in front of the shrine to the Virgin Mary.

Yolande Moreau, a mature actress with a mature figure, is so beautiful as Seraphine you want to cry. She tromps through the movie like a farm hand and yet her face and body are so full of natural grace that she’s captivating. Moreau won the Cesar for best actress and it’s deserved. Her scenes with Ulrich Tukur (Wilhelm Uhde) are poignant.  The woman of few words quickly sees that the troubled writer/collector for whom she cleans is depressed and needs some taking care of.  She offers advice — take a walk and hug a tree (I think she really says hug a tree!).  He’s perplexed by her and embarrassed and yet ultimately takes her up on her suggestion.  Tukur ‘s performance, like Moreau’s is  likewise compelling. He’s not on the scene much but when he’s there his quiet authority in the part is believable and winning.

Seraphine, painting on the floor in her small room.
Seraphine, painting on the floor in her small room.

There’s a great and suitably moody original score by Michael Galasso, full of tinkling piano music and gypsy-like violin and accordian music.

The small town of Senlis is nicely portrayed by a few town characters like the grumpy stationer and the woman who hires Seraphine to clean her various houses. This woman, like all the townspeople in this small town, knows about Seraphine’s secret night-time painting practice, and she, for one, is openly scornful. But Seraphine doesn’t care.  She paints away nightly while she sings Gregorian chant and drinks her homemade wine. Whether she’s in a trance or a stupor or having a true vision, the artist can’t stop painting. When she finally starts showing the works to the townspeople one of them comments that the canvases scare her. The flowers teeming with what look like eyes and mouths and insect-like writhing forms are different than what’s normally thought of as art. Seraphine agrees and says she, too is scared by what she’s done, but she’s nonetheless sure her guardian angel is urging her on.

Seraphine’s story is a roller coaster ride.  And the miracle — which has nothing to do with angels — is that her works survived and are in collections in France where you can even today go see them at these places:  Musée Maillol in Paris, the Musée d’art de Senlis, the Musée d’art naïf in Nice, and the Musée d’Art moderne Lille Métropole in Villeneuve-d’Ascq.

Tags

movie reviews, seraphine, seraphine de senlis, seraphine louis

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