Film Review #219: Séraphine
Director: Martin Provost
Cast: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent
During the Renaissance, artists commonly took the name of their home village or city – for example, Leonardo da Vinci. Wilhelm Uhde, the German art critic who discovered Séraphine Louis in the French village of Senlis shortly before the outbreak of World War I, adopted this practice to distinguish the creator of ecstatic paintings of nature in the style he called “modern primitive.” As we see in French director Martin Provost’s 2008 film of the same name, the reticent, sometimes socially abrasive Séraphine (Yolande Moreau) at first believed that Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) was mocking her when he compared her work – rendered in home-made finger paints of stolen church candle wax, blood from the butcher shop, pond scum and other “secret ingredients” – to those of the old masters. In fact, when not traipsing through the countryside in her own version of pre-Avatar rapture, Séraphine is most often seen on her knees – scrubbing, painting in her locked room, or praying. The film’s other pervasive image is that of a door or window opening into startling light beyond the dark, cramped interiors of Senlis homes and shops – fitting for a portrait of this early “outsider” artist who found only meager sustenance from most social relations, and also suggestive of her access to transported spiritual states.
Provost’s dramatization of the relationship between the two – ruptured by war, madness and Uhde’s own vicissitudes of loyalty – won seven César Awards in France (including Best Actress for Yolande Moreau’s luminous performance in the title role) and in December was named Best Foreign Film By or About Women by the national Women Film Critics Circle here. Last Sunday, at their awards meeting in a Manhattan restaurant, the National Society of Film Critics also designated Yolande Moreau Best Actress in a 2009 film. (A friend and sometime collaborator of countrywoman Agnes Varda, the Belgian Moreau can also be seen in Varda’s currently running, much acclaimed The Beaches of Agnes – she also had a part in Varda’s 1985 film Vagabond – and her own The Sea Also Rises from 2004 is available at Netflix).
Séraphine premiered in Paris in October of 2008 and in New York last March at Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival. There was a DVD release in Canada last June, but the theatrical run in the States of this quiet, distinctly non-blockbuster film has been quite limited, so its appearance in Central New York at all makes it worth a short drive to Hamilton, where it’s currently got a five-day run.
Uhde had already been the first to buy work by Picasso and Braque and to write about Henri Rousseau when he sojourned in Senlis and there stumbled upon a painting of apples by the eccentric middle-aged woman who scrubbed his floors. Séraphine Louis, orphaned early, impoverished and fragile, began painting because her guardian angel commanded her to do so – she had spent twenty years working in the local convent – and she died in 1942 after spending the last decade of her life in the Clermont insane asylum. She met Uhde in 1912, during the period she kept a dingy room in town and picked up odd jobs at cleaning and laundry. The film compresses this first period of their acquaintance to just 1914, ending when Uhde – a Jew and a gay man – hastily left France with his sister Anne-Marie (Anne Bennent) as German troops advanced. Because he was German, the French government had already confiscated and sold off his art collection.
It was Séraphine, entering his ransacked rooms, who saved Uhde’s notebook and returned it to him in 1927, when he was again living in France at nearby Chantilly, and they resumed their association. Uhde then supported her with a small stipend and in 1929 organized an exhibition entitled “Painters of the Sacred Heart” that featured her work. Séraphine had extreme difficulty integrating such material support and recognition, and she became increasingly unstable. Uhde meant for her to be able to buy paint and canvas and stop scrubbing floors. She rented the entire upper floor of her building, decorated lavishly, tried to purchase a villa – Uhde put his foot down at this – and, inscrutably, ordered a bridal trousseau. When she went door to door in the white lace dress and veil, the neighbors had her locked up.
In the film, Uhde visits her just twice at the asylum. She does not respond to him the first time and – in a resonant reversal of image – he only observes her through a window the second. But he does pay for a private room at the asylum that allows her privacy and the freedom to take walks in the fields. The extent to which Uhde abandoned or exploited Séraphine personally or was a product of his times – in the film a doctor advises him against trying to see her again, insisting such contact would make her worse – remains enigmatic in Provost’s telling. Uhde also continued to exhibit her work in Paris and elsewhere, and announced her death some years in advance of the fact. But Uhde served Séraphine’s work itself well, which has endured and enjoyed its own renaissance; the exhibition of her paintings at the Musée Maillol in Paris that began in October 2008, coinciding with the film’s opening, ran until mid-September of 2009.
An abbreviated form of this review appears in the 1/7/10 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Séraphine” is well worth a drive to Hamilton – closer than Ithaca – where it opened Wednesday for a five-day run at Hamilton Theater, 7 Lebanon St., 315.824.2724. Screens daily at 5:30 PM through Sunday, 1/10. Take Route 20 east through Caz and Morrisville, turn south on Route 46 (which becomes 12B). About 40 miles, though winter weather may add time.