Film Review: “Séraphine” A Self Taught Primitive Painter
Séraphine is the story of an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. Séraphine Louis was a housecleaner in a tiny provincial town in France called Senlis. She was in her forties already when she first took up the paint brush, following the instruction of her “guardian angel.” Her work was a joke amongst the other townspeople, particularly those whose homes she cleaned and sheets she washed. But Séraphine kept painting, to the point of poverty and exhaustion, putting every last bit of money and energy into her work as her own intensely private way of celebrating her faith.
Eventually, and improbably, her work was discovered by art collector and critic Wilhelm Uhde (German actor Ulrich Tukur)—better known as the man who discovered Picasso. He was a known proponent of the “naïve” painters, an unfortunate term which refers to an artist’s lack of formal training but whose passion for the art is insatiable, even compulsive (and now a little more diplomatically called “visionary art”). Séraphine was ill-prepared for the money and attention that came with her sudden patronage, and eventually succumbed to her own ever-looming mental illness—the very one that likely inspired her painting in the first place. She died in a mental asylum in France, but her art, known under the name “Séraphine de Senlis,” is still considered a significant find in primitif painting.
Martin Provost’s film, based on this unlikely heroine and her even more unlikely circumstances, was the winner of seven Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars), including awards for best film, best screenplay, and best actress, an honor that doesn’t begin to celebrate the tender, nuanced portrayal Belgium-born actress Yolande Moreau gives to the role of the simple yet impassioned Séraphine.
The film itself is merely okay. It spans two decades of Séraphine’s life in a way that is at times slow and meandering, at other times flashing forward so quickly as to be disorientating. The one saving grace of the inconsistent pacing is that at all points our heroine is doing the exact same thing: by day trudging to and from laundering clothes in the river and the homes she cleans, taking moments to sneak into the supplies store to buy varnish; by night painting with a feverish dedication as if possessed by the very angels whom she claims guide her.
What this film lacks is a more thorough exploration of Séraphine’s personal relationships with others. We see her treated as a dog by those she works for, and we see that she has some sort of friendship with the women of the local convent. We see her offering her prayers of devotion in church, and we often see her alone, trudging through the countryside or lying on the grass by her favorite tree. And we see her painting.
There is a brief building of her relationship with her patron Uhde, during which time she seems to express a sense of jealousy over Uhde’s sister (the familial tie unknown to her); this leads to an entirely unnecessary and distracting side story with Uhde which focuses on his relationship with a young painter named Helmut who was dying of tuberculosis. Why Uhde’s homosexuality became such an important factor in Séraphine’s painting as to require such a derailing emphasis in the film is unclear, and by that I mean it clearly wasn’t and did little more in the film that to halt the progress of Séraphine’s own story, one which I feel was not given the full attention that was due to it.
It isn’t until nearly the end of the film that we see Séraphine in a close friendship with another person; this young girl, a housecleaner named Minouche, seems to act in an almost daughter-like capacity, being both an admirer of Séraphine’s work as well as concerned for Séraphine’s welfare. Minouche becomes Séraphine’s confidante, and it is when she asks Séraphine if she had ever been in love that we finally see our heroine bud with romantic whimsy (something only vaguely hinted at, and perhaps only accidentally so, up to this point). It is sad that we do not see Séraphine in this kind of close personal relationship until so late in the film, and I wonder if it was simply to point out that she had no close friends (something which probably should have been emphasized earlier on), or if this is just an oversight of the script.
For much of the film, Séraphine is relatively silent. She has little opportunity to tell her tale and the film doesn’t waste too much time telling it for her. If the idea is that she is an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, it seems a bit of a back-handed compliment that the film doesn’t do much to emphasize her “ordinariness” other than to show her in one of two states: cleaning and painting. In fact, throughout the film the audience barely gets to know Séraphine at all, aside from her religious faith and almost-religious love of nature. Not from the script, anyway.
No, it is not through the story itself that the audience gets to know Séraphine. It is through Yolande Moreau’s aching portrayal of her. What the film doesn’t allow her in terms of dialogue, Moreau conveys with a lingering glance and the tiniest curve of a smile. With her outstretched arms Moreau conveys a rapturous joy; with her downcast eyes, a timidity that undermines her greater passion.
The story of Séraphine de Senlis perhaps deserves a finer film, but there is no finer actress. Moreau plays Séraphine with an understated complexity that only a truly great performer can convey—particularly with little speech to assist her. Moreau’s Séraphine is whimsical, naïve, audacious, gentle, obsessive, sincere, moody, perhaps a little slow, and deeply devout, with a child-like sense of wonder and awe and an equally child-like petulance, lack of responsibility, and secret craving for attention. Séraphine is not made out to be a beatific figure of divine inspiration and disposition; she is flawed, humble, and ordinary, just as every other “extraordinary” artist, despite their massive talents, is still just ordinary.
This is no story of a tortured artist, like other similarly single-named films about painters (Pollok, Frida, Basquiat). Séraphine is not driven by a drug addiction, sex addiction, or alcohol addiction (though she does like her homemade wine). She is driven by God (and a touch of madness), but not in the same way as the Italian Renaissance painters were, painting enormous and ungainly tributes to Christ and the Virgin Mother covering whole walls and ceilings as a celebration of their faith (or of the Church’s iron grip on society; either way); no, Séraphine is a lover of nature, and so paints vivid pictures of brilliantly-colored fruits and flowers that are almost macabre, seeming to reflect her own fragmented psyche, torn between ecstasy and inner horror. Her flowers, painted in colors she mixed herself with methods and materials she never revealed, look almost as if they wriggle with life; gorgeous pictures that could just as easily be of insects or fanged slashes of flesh as of the local flora, a psychotic landscape teetering on the edges of profound beauty and total madness.
Yolande Moreau finds this balance and displays it with heartbreaking authenticity. In her dowdy appearance and hunched-over gait we see her strength and humility. With her full smile we see a pure, undiluted joy, one that could make God Himself weep. With her angry, self-pitying outbursts we see a child’s over-simplistic and self-centered comprehension of things too big for her to understand. Moreau embodies Séraphine’s own psychological tug-of-war with gentility and honor; while the film itself is a little sloppy, Moreau’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary. While the film fumbles around with too many characters and too many side stories, Moreau is a quiet juggernaut. While Séraphine is a flawed film, Séraphine’s own flaws are brought to life with exquisite tenderness and yearning by the incomparable Moreau.
Séraphine plays at the Detroit Film Theatre Friday, July 10th through Sunday, July 19th. See website for showtimes and ticket information.