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Séraphine ****

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seraphineWhat I found fascinating in Martin Provost’s film about celebrated neo-primitavist Séraphine de Senlis was neither Yolande Moreau’s performance nor Laurent Brunet’s cinematography, but simply the sense of wonder it engenders in the painting. Had I been presented with one of Séraphine’s bustling, verdant works before watching this film, I’d probably have been non-plussed. That may betray a lack of imagination on my part – I would have had a similar relation to Renaissance works from Flemish masters, or Vincent van Gogh, before watching films about their painting. There is something to entertaining the propositions of a fiction about the creation of these works, about viscerally imagining the artistic process, which helps unlock the meaning and all awe and wonder which follows.

seraphine2In the small town of Senlis, 1914, a middle-aged cleaning lady and washerwoman spends her free moments collecting brush and seeds, animal blood and church candle-oil, and communing with nature to inspire her art. Rather than chase causal chains through her life, Provost elects instead to tease out threads of her mental state across the span of key events which led to her painting and its publicisation. We begin when Séraphine is around 50 years old, already absorbed in self-expression under the guidance of her guardian angel. Séraphine Louis seems to suffer some form of autism which eventually descends into schizophrenic dementia. But at first, her eccentric obsessional personality is controlled and channelled into the most beautiful paintings of flowers, leaves, and fruit: wild, livid flowers of her imagination. One viewer of these paintings describes them as in terrifying motion, as fleshy, open wounds. Séraphine remarks that her work scares her too.

seraphine3By chance, German art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde comes to lodge at a house in which she cleans, and discovers Séraphine. So begins a long but deeply troubled relationship between artist and patron. Repeatedly, turns of fate throw up insurmountable obstacles to success. Between the First World War and the Great Depression, Séraphine narrowly misses achieving public recognition and wealth before descending into senility. This is a majestic performance from Moreau, but to me, the film belongs to the paintings.

It has enjoyed success in Frace, winning the big prize at the Césars, but seems to be receiving a less warm reception from the public overseas. This is a terrible shame, but unsurprising, given the strictly old-school art-house sensibilities of Séraphine. It demands patience, and meditative consideration. But it is presented on these terms, and it’s unfair to arbitrarily expect something else. Treated like a painting in a gallery, Séraphine is a really touching and exquisitely made film. This is an analogy which seems oddly compelling while at a film festival, because only when it is possible to see so many great films so freely does film start to draw such comparisons. I am a much better appreciator of film than of painting, and so it is a real luxury to be able to enjoy the kind of range and depth of art in this medium that one takes for granted in a gallery.


Séraphine, Dir. & Writ. Martin Provost, Star. Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, France, Belgium, 2008
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Written by James P. Campbell

19/06/2009 at 18:30

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