“Seraphine” (2009) is based on the relationship of art collector and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde and French primitive painter, Seraphine Louis.
In 1912, we see Seraphine as a dowdy maid cleaning the floors and stripping the bed of a German art dealer. She notices his sadness and offers him her “energy” wine. She shares that walks in nature often make her foul moods lift. He pays not much heed of her, but appreciates her kindness. When Seraphine later shows her displeasure at a woman jumping into his bed and making loud noises to roust him, he smiles at her misconception.
Wilhelm (Ulrich Tuker) confides that the woman is his sister, and that Seraphine shall never find a female lover in his bed. The religious Seraphine understands his secret. Later, when he asks where she gets her red paint of such unusual consistency, she smiles and says that she has her secrets, too. Thus begins an unusual alliance.
Belgian comedian, actress, and screenwriter Yolanda Moreau is cast in the role of Seraphine. For this portrayal, Moreau won the Cesar Award for Best Actress. Moreau, also, directs: and these directorial talents seem to merge with her acting ability to make us care about her character while giving viewers an objective distance which mirrors Wilhelm’s own. Bathing in a stream, collecting clay for her paints, or pouring wax from the votives at church for her own use, Seraphine is busy with life. She sings as she paints. Her exactitude meshes with ecstasy in just the right doses. She signs her board and later her canvases before she begins her art. Flower and fruit motifs furl and wind and rewind in this self-taught artist’s pieces.
Creating and making due with one meal a day, Seraphine is looked in on by the villagers, who understand that her painting is admired by the now absent art critic Wilhelm Uhde. ( As a German, he has been chased out of France right before World War I.) Uhde has discovered Rousseau, and he sees a primitive kindred soul in Seraphine. He has helped support her by making certain she has supplies. He wants her to focus on her gift rather than on domestic drudgery. Money is given to her landlady to acquire a larger suite with a studio. A young, neighbor girl helps Seraphine buy silver and set up house with new dishes, and even a samovar. A tad heady with the generosity of this new found patron, Seraphine purchases a pricey bridal gown, which she wears in a bizarre scene which causes the villagers to call the constables. It is here, that we have a mad artist of sorts.
The asylum provides no art therapy as a recourse, and Seraphine is ultimately buried in a common grave in 1942. She was 78. Her work was exhibited posthumously in “ The Modern Primitive Exhibition of 1945”.
Director Martin Provost, also a Cesar Award winner for this film, develops both main characters. We see Wilhelm in Germany caring for his sick lover. Ten years pass. Seraphine continues at paint, and Wilhelm sees her work in a townhall exhibit. He searches and finds her and is appalled at her state. We see him trying to better Seraphine’s lot by paying for a private quarters on the asylum’s grounds. He relishes her work and respects her privacy. His grief strewn face is as upsetting as Seraphine’s straight-jacketed moans and screams.
The cinematography is lush. Wind and light swirl around us. Reminiscent of Francois Truffaut ‘s films “The Wild Child” and his “Adele H”. Even the harsh interiors are lighted by moon or candle flame. Seraphine hugs trees and bounces in stream beds. Restrained and bed bound, the suffering artist rends our hearts in a pure white cell. While current Van Gogh films like “ Loving Vincent” (reviewed Oct. 29th, 2017 ) are structured around the art, “Seraphine” focuses on the woman, who hears her guardian angel’s whispers. This is a moving film that draws us back to her almost medieval designs: colorful, ordered, yet sometimes frightening.
In “Seraphine” artful questions emerge about the creative spirit, and for some, like myself, an artist is introduced through her story.