Based on a true story, Séraphine delves into the relationship between naïve painter Séraphine Louis (1864–1942) and art collector Wilhelm Uhde. In a little town north of Paris, Séraphine works as a maid for Madame Duphot, who rents an apartment to German art critic and dealer Wilhelm Uhde, an enthusiastic advocate of modern and primitive artists. In her spare time, Séraphine paints, with anything she can find – wine, mud, a mixture of fruits and flowers. When Wilhelm comes across one of her paintings, he is instantly mesmerized and insists that Séraphine show him the rest of her work. So begins a nurturing relationship that will expose Séraphine's work to the world. But as Séraphine paints her most inspired canvas, the power of her work leads her into the realms of madness.

A complex artist but a tender film.

The paintings are delicate constructs of flowers and trees in colours that can only happen when artistry connects with inspiration. The person responsible for these subtle and majestic works is a middle-aged washer woman who ekes out a living working on her knees doing the kind of work rich folk can’t face. No one offers her a second look, and no one expects anything of her. To them she is plain and simple. But for Seraphine, her art works are evidence that something Devine is working through her hands. In time the rest of the world will come to think her mad and the work genius.

Seraphine the movie operates in that uneasy cinematic sub-genre of movies about Famous Artists. Set over several decades but beginning in 1914 as war comes to France, the plot essentially deals with the moment that Seraphine Louis, who became known as a painter in the naïve style, is discovered and made famous through the agency of Art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). What’s good about it is that it is not a film about greatness or even painting. If it were it might be given over to pat answers. Instead it’s a movie of character. There’s nothing fancy in its cinematic conceit. There’s no set up, no hint that we are watching a movie that emerges from a real life piece of art history. Seraphine, played with a sad-faced dignity that is as compelling as it is disturbing by Yolande Moreau, we meet as a slightly off-putting lady, aged beyond her years. Staged with great stillness in a natural light that is gorgeous and sad at once, by director Martin Provost who wrote the screenplay with Marc Abdelnour, this is a movie of long silences and no assumptions. We see Seraphine stealing turps from a church and collect blood from butchered animals. Appearing at first as the quirky manners and pre-occupations of an 'eccentric’ this is revealed slowly and patiently as an artist’s method. But where Provost’s real interest lies in the way the outside world views Seraphine. She is sold short at every turn, underestimated and often dismissed. Provost challenges us, not by softening Seraphine, but by forcing us to look at the possibilities of beauty in a world that’s often taken at face value.

Still, this isn’t to suggest that this is a romantic view of an artist exactly. It’s sympathetic and complex. Provost doesn’t make the mistake of making madness look cute. Near the end of film, once Seraphine is interned the images of scared and decayed lives are truly terrible and the screams of pain frighteningly real.

It’s a demanding film, slow, with very little conventional melodrama. But it has a tender soul.


2 hours 6 min
Wed, 03/03/2010 - 11