SERAPHINE (Martin Provost, 2008)

“When she wasn’t mopping the floor, she was painting.”

A great film about the creative impulse and forces either supporting or arrayed against it, Martin Provost’s Séraphine is about Séraphine Louis, the modern primitive painter later known as Séraphine de Senlis, after the town, outside Paris, where she worked as a domestic. Nearing fifty, Séraphine is a quiet, intense woman who goes off by herself and sings aloud; a wonderful shot showing her sitting in a tree, her hefty legs dangling, suggests her holistic intimacy with Nature. In 1914, gay German art collector and dealer Wilhelm Uhde discovers Séraphine’s promising artwork and encourages its development. After the First World War, Uhde rediscovers Séraphine and, finding that her gorgeous painting has immeasurably progressed, becomes her patron. The misconception that her fame and fortune were now assured implodes when the worldwide depression slashes Uhde’s resources, compelling him to withdraw support and sending Séraphine, once an object of ridicule, into a downward spiral of mental illness that leads to her institutionalization at Clermont Asylum, where her obsession with her artwork departs. “Painting,” she now says, “has gone in the night.”
     The film’s exquisite Old Masters lighting—the César-winning color cinematography is by Laurent Brunet—is ironic; it may seem out of sync with Séraphine’s own time and her richly colored paintings of (somehow) fluid fruits and flowers, but it becomes correlative to the darkness that increasingly overtakes her faculties and art, bringing to fruition the “dark” and dangerous element in her work that she confesses early on terrifies even her.
     Yolande Moreau won her second best actress César Award for her superlative work as Séraphine; in all, Séraphine won seven Césars, including best film. Moreau, best actress: Lumiere Award, Étoiles d’Or, National Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles critics.


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