Seraphine (2008) dir. Martin Provost
Starring Yolande Moreau Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviève Mnich, Nico Rogner
Guest review by Blair Stewart
One of the great joys I have in watching films are those scenes devoted to 'doing things' - the process of building, creating or teaching, however banal. Philip Baker Hall showing John C. Reilly the ropes of casino gambling in "Hard Eight" is oddly thrilling, same with the Mikado coming together for Gilbert and Sullivan in "Topsy-Turvy", and the detailed schemes in Michael Mann's "Heat" and even, my guilty pleasure, the Japanese tea making scene in the "Karate Kid II". Martin Provost's "Seraphine", a big winner at the Cesars (the French Oscars) this year, has that same quality.
Seraphine Louis (1864-1942) was a French outsider artist whose still-life paintings had an unusual vibrancy - earthly and erotic, made from unknown materials brushed onto wood canvases. The material was unknown in part due to Seraphine's social status as an orphaned cleaning lady. Too poor to buy paint she made use of butchers' blood and nicked church oils to create her works. For the private and devout woman her paintings brought about ecstacy, as if her hands were guided by the Virgin Mother before they scrubbed the floors bare in the morning. Into the town of Senlis came the German art critic Wilhelm Udhe who inherited Seraphine as his housecleaner and was baffled by the gruff woman. As Udhe had done with Rousseau and Picasso, he spotted Seraphine's talent and nutured it before the First World War, the Depression and madness interupted their plans together.
Yolande Moreau, a recongnisable face from European cinema, is excellent as Seraphine - an Cesar-winning lead role that jumps between the poles of sensibility and frenzy, admirability and maddening. Veteran actor Ulrich Tukur as Udhe provides a fine performance as the professional, secretive man who kicks over stones looking for gold.
The film maintains intact truth and integrity to the story without sacrifice to the cinematic art. Seraphine experiences success for the first time, spending money wontonly and reverting to a spoilt child when it dries up. It also doesn't gloss over Seraphine's deteriorating mental state where she spent her last years in an asylum while her art was in the MOMA.
Martin Provost's work as the co-writer and director is unsentimental and attentive, sympathetic characters become petty and human, petty characters suffer loss and gain dimension. Glimpses of Seraphine creating are a joy in part to Moreau's singing voice, a finished painting brought about loud hymns to Mary and Provost provides witty cutaways to her sleepless neighbours.
Like the other films and scenes mentioned above, we get great pleasure in watching Seraphine's process. The act of finding paints, mixing them to the final brush strokes show the great artist as a headstrong 'peasant' raising herself above her impoverished circumstances. And so her downfall becomes that much more tragic knowing the great care and attention she gave to the discipline of her art.