Geneva Anderson digs into art

film review: Séraphine–Yolande Moreau shines as she scrubs, paints, chants

Yolande Moreau as Séraphine

Yolande Moreau as Séraphine, Music Box Films

I’ve been waiting to see Séraphine, the French film about naïve painter Séraphine Louis aka Séraphine de Senlis that swept France, gathering 7 Cesars for best film, best screenplay, best cinematography, best sound, best costumes, best décor, and best actress for Yolande Moreau.  It was worth it.  I left the theatre both nourished and disturbed by this film and got in my car and found myself chanting to the top of my lungs, self-soothing in the very fashion of the film’s heroine, Séraphine.  We are all a little crazy and some of us have access to resources that lighten the load and allow us to excel and be celebrated while others among us stagger and buckle in obscurity.  The film asks us to consider the rare circumstances that must come into play for artistic genius to flourish.

Belgium-born Moreau delivers the performance of a lifetime embodying a woman whose creative light will not be dimmed by her status, environment, lack of recognition, formal education or war.  Whether we see Séraphine’s cup as half-empty or half full, or both is left for us to decide.  The film is set in the small village of Senlis, France, northeast of Paris, and begins in 1914, when war in France is eminent.  The film starts slowly, introducing us to Séraphine through her long and drudging daily routine as a maid.  Middle-aged and ragged from wear, she is both ordinary and extraordinary all at once and that is what makes Yolande Moreau’s performance so captivating.  The film also focuses on German

Yolande Moreau as Séraphine with Ulrich Tukur as German art dealer Williams Uhde

Yolande Moreau as Séraphine with Ulrich Tukur as German art dealer Williams Uhde, Music Box Films

 critic and collector William Uhde  (Ulrich Tukur) who worked with several prominent artists early in their careers including Picasso and Henry “Le Douanier” Rousseau.  Uhde, who resides in Paris, has rented a room for the summer in Senlis with his sophisticate female sister.

Uhde and Séraphine have very limited interaction until he stumbles upon her artwork at a dinner party hosted by his gadfly landlady who mocks Séraphine’s small floral work stashed in the corner.  In a single glance, Uhde responds to the raw power of this piece, buys it on the spot, and leaves the party.  Hence begins his important and complex relationship with Séraphine whose art nurtures his sole and inspires him to organize a show for her in Paris “when the time is right.”  Uhde gives Séraphine the all-important push and respect that she needs to take herself seriously as an artist.  As Séraphine labors by day scrubbing floors in the villa and washing bedding down by the river, Uhde demands more and more of her attention.  She works through the nights passionately painting on whatever materials she can scrounge—typically small and warped pieces of wood– with paints she mixes herself from pilfered materials like candle wax and blood or plants she collects in the countryside.  There is something tender in their interaction—she admires his lovely handwriting and expresses empathy for his depressive state, while he attempts to nurture her talent.  His attention inspires her and her unique tableaus of sprawling botanicals pour forth, pulsing with life force and seeming to dance before the eye.

Yolande Moreau as Séraphine

Yolande Moreau as Séraphine, Music Box Films

Uhde’s dream of introducing her work to the Parisian art world is waylaid by the start of WWI and he has to flee back to Germany with his sister.  He leaves Séraphine with some cash and the two don’t meet again until many years have passed.   At this point, Séraphine is down on her luck and battling inner demons but has been painting steadily sustained by her belief that she is being guided by her guardian angel and that her act of painting is a holy ordained act

Uhde sees the tremendous growth in her work and the two fall into agrrement that he will support her while she devotes herself to her art.  Séraphine gradually achieves some recognition commensurate with her talent and the money starts to flow but she spends capriciously.  Unequipped for her newfound success, she begins a devastating emotional decline that ulitmately leaves her instituionized.   

Director Martin Provost keeps a tight focus on the complex relationship between Séraphine and Uhde who live and suffer through each other.  Moreau steals the show.  Her weathered face is astonishingly evocative and at times seems lit from within.  Tukur is also great as the troubled art dealer, ever in search of great art, living to collect.

Séraphine, at Bay Area theatres,  directed by Martin Provost.  In French with English subtitles. (Not rated, 125 minutes)

August 16, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment