Sunday, December 19, 2010

Séraphine (2008)

I had never heard of this wonderful film until recently, one of the most enchanting I have ever seen, about the mystical artist Séraphine Louis. She was outwardly a dumpy chambermaid, living a life of drudgery, performing the most menial tasks in the town of Senlis. However, untrained and untaught, she produced works of fire and light while singing hymns to God and the Virgin. According to The Guardian:
Séraphine de Senlis was a lowly French domestic who painted on the sly. She spent her coppers on brushes and oils and daubed primitive still lifes that caught the eye of a visiting art critic. And yet, if Martin Provost's engrossing biopic is to be believed, the artist was never cut out for a life of stardom. As played by Yolande Moreau, Séraphine looks positively monolithic – a round-shouldered, splay-footed creature of toil. But her mental state is ­precarious, propped up by familiar routines. ­Success unbalances her and she takes to wandering the streets, resplendent in a new, shop-bought wedding dress. ­Provost unearths this marginal figure to offer a poignant salute to a life on the fringes. This is a measured, soulful and tactile work; a film with gouache beneath its fingernails. Like Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh drama, it suggests that outsider art may be as much a symptom of disorder as a release from it. In Séraphine's case, it is a private, personal enterprise, fitted in around the day-to-day drudgery and largely played out behind closed doors. Drag the art into the spotlight and the artist combusts.
 One of the "Sacred Heart" painters, Séraphine did not get to enjoy her success because of her mental illness. One has a sense from the film that she was a sort of victim soul. Nevertheless, throughout the film it is shown how in her poverty she experiences a joy in living that all the normal people cannot comprehend. It is Séraphine's ecstasy that mesmerizes the art dealer, Wilhelm Uhde. Film Journal International describes the artistry of the film thus:
Séraphine is the story of a little-known Primitivist painter, Séraphine de Senlis, who died in 1942 in her native France. French filmmaker Martin Provost began researching her life after a friend told him about the artist, and it wasn’t long before Séraphine’s indomitable personality captivated the writer-director. In his narrative film, driven not by his character’s motivations or actions but by her spiritual life, Provost seems to draw on the Transcendentalist cinematic tradition, especially the films of fellow Frenchman Robert Bresson.

Séraphine spoke to her guardian angel, and was guided in all things by her abiding faith in God. She may have been haunted by delusions—she died in an asylum—but Provost sees her as someone with a boundless inner life. To picture it, he left his mise-en-scène uncluttered, as though he were making space for that other world which is Séraphine’s alone. He also keeps the camera static, so that people, objects and sounds can permeate the frame and hint at realities outside our field of view and, by extension, outside our usual psychological understanding of the world....

Séraphine begins in the small village of Senlis, just before the arrival of the German author and art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), an early collector of Braque and Picasso. (The latter painted a cubist portrait of him in 1910.) It was during Uhde’s pre-World War I stay in Senlis that he discovered Séraphine (Yolande Moreau). She was his cleaning lady. By most standards, Séraphine, with little formal education, lived a marginal existence, but the richness of her spiritual life, her real life, is discovered by Uhde at a dinner party when he spies a small painting of hers discarded by his hostess. Uhde, who had already identified Primitivist painters as a distinct group, perceived in Séraphine’s modest painting on wood the same qualities he saw in Rousseau, another artist whose work he wrote about and later exhibited.

Séraphine is propelled by the singular spirit of artistic creation, which its eponymous character inhabited as naturally as she did her cleaning lady’s apron. Every frame of the film, and every frame within a frame—a doorway, a window, the ornate splat of a bistro chair—portends containment. Then, through the splat of the chair or through the window of Uhde’s apartment, we spy grass, and beyond that a pastoral landscape. A long shot of a splendid hilltop tree is accompanied by the sound of wind suddenly sweeping through it from somewhere beyond the frame; we hear the wind just before we see its effect on the tree, as Séraphine does when she trods into the frame and looks up to hear the rustling leaves. In that contrast between constraint and openness, Provost represents the mix of discipline and freedom that is the essence of a creative life.
The relationship between Uhde and Séraphine is portrayed as a rare spiritual friendship, a genuine meeting of minds and souls. What is so amazing about the film is that the heroine is anything but a beauty and yet the magnificence of her soul illumines her face so that she becomes one of the most captivating protagonists in the history of cinema. The film celebrates the same power of the spiritual realm over the material, and the triumph of faith amid darkness and the devastation of a broken mind.

Séraphine de Senlis


Charleybrown said...

I absolutely loved the film! It moved me on such a personal level and was so beautifully captured. One of my favourite films this year!

CW said...

I watched this movie just a few weeks ago. Lovely.

Julygirl said...

I viewed it twice and it captivated me even more the second time around.