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April 2010


cast: Yoland Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviève Mnich, and Adélaïde Leroux

director: Martin Provost

120 minutes (PG) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Paul Higson


Martin Provost's Séraphine arrives with a raft of Cesars including one for the deserving lead actress Yolande Moreau. Metrodome, however, have been careful not to release too many still images, seemingly shy to admit that their story centres on a simple and frumpy woman with an innate talent for painting. This is no Artemisia where the subject is an attractive young filly who can have her beauty advanced even more into that of model beauty. The one recurring image is that of Séraphine on the floor knelt over a 'canvas' in a dress coloured mould green, her form hidden. Her face is angular, reshaped so by the way her straggly hair falls. They are fidgeting nervously abroad and they don't want to put anyone off by a lack of glamour.

Séraphine opens in 1912 in the French town of Senlis where we find the middle-aged Séraphine Louis trudging from one employer to the next. She completes various cleaning chores and then returns home for evenings alone under the candlelight carrying out her God-given instructions to paint. Her daubs are of colourful local fauna and her canvas is generally scavenged board. Unable to afford the materials for her art she scrounges them from her surroundings. She smuggles a bottle of blood from the butcher's shop and sneaks molten wax from the church candles, these and other natural sources combining to give her paintings unusual texture and vibrant colouring.

German art expert, critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) stumbles upon Séraphine's work and recognises it as a startling example of his much vaunted primitive modernism, or naive art as he avoids referring to it. He becomes her benefactor but the film has succeeded in distracting us from the date for there is barely 18 months before the Great War intrudes, driving the outsider Uhde out, and leaving Séraphine without her sponsor. We see Séraphine stubbornly remain in the threatened town as a harsh winter settles over it and it empties for fear of invasion. Surviving on that left behind she continues her painting but in what appears to be more despondent hues.

By 1927, the story picks up again with Uhde now returned to France and living in nearby Chantilly, with his sister, Anne Marie (Anne Bennent), and a young male lover (Nico Rogner) who is weak with tuberculosis. When Anne-Marie notes in the press that there is to be an exhibition of local art in Senlis she considers whether his former ingénue might still be painting which Uhde dismisses, presuming that she must be dead; she was 63 and Uhde may have assumed her older or a victim of the war. He answers his own curiosity and finds examples of her work at the exhibition.

They are reunited. She meets him with an expression in which everything is confirmed in a moment. Relief, happiness, hope; she believed he would return and that is everything she had been working towards. If her expression doesn't hit you like a brick avalanche then the line "Sir came back!" does. Once inside her first action is towards a closet to collect and return to him his notebook, rescued during the bleak period of war and kept safe for him for 12 years.

Uhde has lost his art collection in the war and has had to rebuild it over the years. He is again in a position to finance Séraphine who has improved greatly as an artist and is producing work on a larger scale, two metres tall, because it "is important." God still instructs. Séraphine, unfamiliar with money, gets carried away with the tab and overspends. The timing is bad, the rollercoaster of luck taking a new dive as the Great Depression hits.

The money while it lasts doesn't distract her but instead buys her the comfort and creates the environment that enables her to produce her boldest work. She previews each new work to different eyes. It runs from the vivid but comforting to fierce but beautiful. One reaction runs: "Your flowers are strange, they move like insects. They look like eyes, wounded eyes, shredded flesh. Terrifying things." Séraphine responds: "When I see what I've done, it scares me too." On more than one occasion the descriptions and images coincide with the viewers own thoughts to telepathic effect.

Her behaviour is increasingly eccentric and Uhde takes her to task on the overspending, particularly critical of an expensive wedding dress and no apparent suitor. Events take a turn for the worse and the productive period end with Séraphine institutionalised, her painting coming to a full stop. It is a story possibly little known because any potential tellers saw it as having few highs. Most of her long life was spent in drudgery and left in ignorance with possibly only the two clearly recorded intervals in the light and no reason to assume real adventure beyond that.

The timing for Séraphine was terrible with the outbreak of the Second World War and other destructive events curtailing her progression. The director opens the film gradually with a quotidian first 10 minutes that expresses perfectly the laborious and mediocre norm, and spends another 20 minutes gently breaking into that ordinariness and releasing the magic. The story-arc is gentle but commanding and at times devastating. Comedy character-actress Moreau impresses in a finely nuanced performance, becoming more bended and exhausted over time, and she is supported by a strong cast. The DVD includes a couple of minor essays on the artist and the history of naive art respectively.

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