Thursday 17 December 2009


Séraphine is a new film by French director Martin Provost. The film is a tender and moving tribute to the rather sad life of French naïve painter Séraphine de Senlis. This is another slow moving film with little in the way of dialogue. The film begins in the summer of 1914 and the opening scenes show us the everyday life of Séraphine, who is by then in her 40s, as she goes about her business as a cleaning maid to various rich households in the small town of Senlis. This long opening sequence also shows Séraphine almost haphazardly collecting a strange mix of items. She picks bunches of plants and flowers, steals some blood from the local butcher and pockets molten candle wax from the church. We are well into the film before we see Séraphine actually painting. For she is an untutored artist who paints in silence and in private in her own tiny garret of a room.

The scenes of her painting are among the most intense in the whole film. She can only paint at night and consequently is only shown in semi-darkness, the room barely lit by oil lamps. Most of her painting is done either on all fours, crouching above the canvass, or lying on her side beside the canvass, as if caressing a child.

Her work is only discovered by accident when the German art critic and collector, Wilhelm Uhde, sees one of her small paintings lying around a neighbour’s house. The local families do not value Séraphine’s work - she is just a maid. But Uhde is most definitely impressed. However this is summer 1914 and war is about to break out and Uhde, as a German has to flee France. Séraphine is left undiscovered as it were and spends the following 13 years in much the same way - working as a cleaning maid and painting whenever she can.

The real breakthrough does not happen until 1927 when Uhde, back living in France, once again by chance rediscovers Séraphine’s work at an exhibition of local artists. This time he is in a position to buy some of her works and sponors her to paint more. However her new found riches do not bring her any peace of mind, and she gradually descends into mental illness. This is compounded by the effects of the great depression which force Uhde to stop paying for her work. Soon after she is admitted to a psychiatric hospital and she stops painting.

The film does not really explain her mental collapse, though it does hint at some possibilities. Séraphine is a deeply religious person and her painting clearly stems from some kind of religious inspiration. She was brought up by nuns and does not appear to have any close friends. Indeed apart from Uhde and another maid, just about everyone treats her very badly and either bully or mock her. Her paintings seems to serve a personal need and are in some sense not really for sale. Her brief exposure to the world of commerce only seems to destroy whatever equilibrium she had. In the film her growing mental breakdown is captured by her preparations for her own wedding - to whom is unknown, Christ himself?

The final scenes are of Séraphine in the psychiatric ward. She now has her own room, and this time though the room is bright and clean and Séraphine wanders freely out into the sunny countryside to find peace with the trees and plants. It is an amazing contrast to the semi-obscure conditions in which she brought her paintings to life.

The film is beautifully shot with exquisite performances from Yolande Moreau as Séraphine and Ulrich Tuker as Uhde. Excellent though the actors are, the film is mainly a triumph of cinematrography. Few films bring out so clearly that cinema is a visual medium. A great film.

You can see some her works here.

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