Film Review: Seraphine

Yolande Moreau gives a brilliant performance as Séraphine de Senlis, a little-known 20th-century French artist, in a film that draws inspiration from the Transcendentalist cinematic tradition. The movie received seven Césars, including best pict

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.

Provost joins a small group of contemporary Transcendentalist filmmakers, most notably Iranians Majid Majidi (Song of Sparrows) and Samira Makhmalbaf (Blackboards), Mongolian filmmaker Byambasuren Davaa (The Story of the Weeping Camel), and Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi (Half Moon). While animated films have never been thought of as Transcendentalist, this year’s Oscar winner in the animated short subject category, La Maison en Petits Cubes, by Kunio Kato, is definitely in the Transcendentalist tradition. These writer-directors represent a diverse group, but they nevertheless share the sensibilities which so obviously inform Provost’s Séraphine: that the most fundamental aspects of personality or soul are the alpha and omega of narrative, and that the narrative, deriving from this inner world, expresses some universal truth of human existence.

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.

Uhde was a foreigner in France, and he was a homosexual at a time when homosexuals were forced to lead double lives. He was married, briefly, and then apparently hid his relationships with other men so that he could continue his public life as a critic, author and collector. In the closed society of Senlis, Séraphine, too, led a double life, coming from a social class that did not often produce painters. Uhde’s admiration and patronage of her, then, comes as no surprise. He encouraged Séraphine in the year before the First World War, and then fled when war became imminent. He returned to France but did not contact Séraphine until the late 1920s; that’s when he began to support her so that she could paint full-time. Provost does not explain this lapse, nor does it matter; Séraphine’s faith in Uhde’s return was unwavering. She painted all the years of his absence, Uhde having convinced her that she had talent.

Michael Galasso’s (Secret Ballot, In the Mood for Love) beautiful score—enhanced by Emmanuel Croset’s (The Last Mistress) excellent mix—mostly reflects Séraphine’s inner state, or the mood of a particular sequence. There is also a good deal of silence in Séraphine, so the music, interrupting the quiet, makes the score a more effective element of the storytelling. Provost’s direction strives, in every way, for understatement, so that the pathos of Séraphine’s life animates the entire film. In a brilliant performance, Yolande Moreau (When the Sea Rises) captures both the purposeful, single-minded woman who does other people’s laundry to support her painting, and Séraphine de Senlis, whose secret life of fervid creativity drove her to madness.