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Film Review


Seraphine de Senlis was a French painter, working as a maid, and without any formal training, who painted strange floral arrangements, in the first quarter of the 20th century. Although some of her paintings are now in the Louvre, she is largely unknown to all but art historians. Martin Provost, a French actor turned director, has just co-written and directed a sensitive, close observed film about her life, based on the historical record, and the creative process of artists. It is very difficult to show this creative process in a film but Provost does it as well as ever seen. An artist's inner life, inspiration, and impulses are hard enough to understand, and understanding becomes even more difficult when the artist is an "outsider". Indeed, the term "outsider art" means art created by those on the outer edges of society, from the socially isolated to the eccentric to those with crippling mental illness. Like a related category of art, naive, these artists rarely had any formal training, so that often the images are exaggerated in form, color, or placement. Yet their work is often a powerful statement from their inner lives. Henri Rousseau's astonishing moonlit jungle scenes, with his fearsome beasts peering out of the dense foliage, sometimes with nude women, are the iconic representations of outsider art. And ironically, painted during the same period as Seraphine painted, the early 20th century.

The film Seraphine follows the historical record of her life as a very poor woman working as a maid in the small town of Senlis, first for a convent, then for people in the town, for little pay and often treated with contempt. The opening scene shows a barefoot dumpy woman, wading in shallow river, collecting mud and other things. She walks back to town, stopping to gather various plants, and then to the church, where she blows out a candle to collect the melted wax. Then she returns to her tiny room, and begins to use these substances to make her own pigments. She cannot afford prepared paint or canvas, so paints on wood panels. We see her scrubbing floors and washing laundry at the river, but also climbing a tree to be closer to nature. Her life is hard, and painting is her passion and expression of her love of nature and God. She always sings when she is near completion of a painting. One of her employers happens to discover that Seraphine paints, so asks her to bring a painting. She does, and is ridiculed, and the painting simply stacked in the corner. One day a German art critic and dealer, Wilhelm Uhde, rents a room in that house, and sees the painting. Uhde was a very early promoter of Rousseau, and understood the revolutionary nature and power of outsider art. He asks who painted this, is told, and eventually discovers Seraphine's trove of paintings in her room. She doesn't believe Uhde's praise of her paintings, but sells him some, and uses the money to buy real canvas and varnish. Uhde buys more paintings, and gradually Seraphine's life improves. Udhe is also an outsider, in a different way, which the film soon makes clear. But it is 1914, the guns of August start, the Germans invade France, and Uhde flees to Switzerland.

The second chapter of Seraphine begins in Chantilly in 1927. Uhde has returned to France, renting another house, convinced for some reason that Seraphine has died, when he reads of a painting exhibition in the Senlis town hall. Curious, he goes, sees nothing very interesting, and suddenly spots several paintings that are clearly by Seraphine. He goes to her apartment and is dazzled by her recent paintings, which are now on canvas, and much larger in scale. He becomes her dealer and friend, and soon she is able to rent a larger room and buy furnishings. And larger canvases. There is a wonderful scene where she is showing her large paintings, standing behind them, and looking at us over the top. Many of her paintings are amazing, fantastic looking images of flowers, trees, fruit, filled with spiraling energy, all on very dark back grounds. Someone says that her blossoms look like wounded eyes, and Seraphine says yes, it is like me. Uhde has promised Seraphine a major exhibition, but the depression has begun and paintings are not selling. Seraphine is hurt by this, and begins an accelerated decline into bizarre behavior and delusions. Her end is very sad, alone in an asylum for women. But the film closes with a wonderful scene that summarizes her life.

Provost has produced a lyric masterpiece of a film here, with a fascinating story and outstanding acting. Yolande Moreau plays Seraphine, and is brilliant; I cannot remember better acting. The cinematography is truly wonderful, with many of the scenes at dusk or dawn, and colors muted, even in sunlight. There is an intense focus on Moreau's face which seems to perfectly express Seraphine's inner life. The scenes shot in the village are beautiful, often of Seraphine walking down narrow streets flanked by the aging stone walls of buildings. The countryside scenes are memorable, and in fact there is hardly a scene that could not be used as a still. Provost uses little dialog or music, except hymns as a background for Seraphine's work of painting in her room. Pacing is deliberately slow but definitely not boring. I loved Seraphine, and no question that this will make my best films of the year list. Surely it will win the Best Foreign Film award next February. Playing at the Clay, which usually means a long run. I hope so, as this film is so much more powerful on the large screen.

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