Seraphine - Movie Review

By Moira Sullivan

Séraphine is the story of a gifted self-taught painter who lived in France from 1864 to 1942 and who got her inspiration from God. Yolande Moreau received a Cesar award as best actress of 2009 for her brilliant performance as Séraphine. Séraphine de Senlis is a middle aged plumb woman who dresses in blue, and who works at various odd jobs in people’s homes who treat her badly. That doesn’t seem to interfere with her mission to create, even when she is behind in her rent for two months. A sign on the door: "Mme Séraphine is not taking visitors" takes care of persistent creditors. Safe behind locked doors she paints and while she paints she sings religious hymns. And she spends her time in nature hugging and climbing trees and picking flowers.

One day a man arrives as a tenant for a summer place and Séraphine is asked to clean up after him. He turns out to be the reputable art collector and critic, William Udhe, played by Ulrich Tukur and who takes an interest in her paintings. Her artwork centers on painting flowers, flowers that almost seem alive, and her paints are made from natural products that she mixes herself on wooden panes bought at a village shop.

After this meeting with Udhe the film takes on the familiar momentum of an extraordinary climb from rags to riches, but not quite. The local art critics and town people bestow patronizing accolades on Séraphine's work but in time she is compared to Henri Rousseau. All this doesn’t seem to interest her. But after receiving pittances from employers, Séraphine expresses interest in all kinds of luxurious items and buys some of them too, charging them to Udhe. Her list of demands grows but she is beginning to prosper during the financial crisis of the 1930s. She wants a show, and a house, but the time is not right. One wonders if she had been a man if that show would not have materialized. Alas this setback takes her over the edge and she is institutionalized.

One cannot also help wonder if her working class circumstances and religious piety just as her gender are more than tremendous odds against her for the friendship with Udhe is a stroke of luck. Director Martin Provost poetically frames this odd companionship. His eye for detail in capturing the every day life of Séraphine is contemplative and realistic and for this careful attention the film also won Cesars for best picture screenplay, cinematography, production, costume design and music. The awards however do not convey the preciousness of this forgotten artist, brought to life through Yolande Moreau.

© 2009 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 07/08/09
Movie Magazine International