Eugene Weekly : Movies : 9.10.09


Virtue of Necessity
The agony and ecstasy of painter Séraphine
by Jason Blair

SÉRAPHINE: Directed by Martin Provost. Written by Provost and Marc Abdelnour. Cinematography, Laurent Brunet. Music, Michael Galasso. Starring Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur and Anne Bennent. Music Box Films, 2009. Unrated. 121 minutes.

Yolande Moreau in Séraphine

The early scenes of Séraphine feature our heroine, a middle-aged housekeeper, climbing trees and collecting river mud, endeavors not typically associated with introverted maidservants. In these establishing moments, Séraphine (Yolande Moreau) seems equally pensive and purposeful, an eccentric but physically capable laundress. When she helps herself to some blood from a bowl of entrails at the butcher’s, it appears she’s either a vampire — as if we need more of them right now — or she’s happened upon a cheap alternative for hair dye. Her interests turn out to be more alchemical than heretical: A quick trip to the cathedral for candle wax and — viola! — she’s blending the ingredients into a familiar-looking paste. The message, fragile artists, is clear: If this meager soul, valued only as a remover of stains and scrubber of floors, is so passionate about color that she makes her own paint, what does that say about our notions of purity? What does it say about inspiration? Séraphine proves a natural foil to the citizenry of Selnis, France, who tend to have little imagination and less appreciation for her art. This includes the local paper merchant, who says she’d be better off “buying coal for winter” than purchasing his supplies. 

Much of Séraphine proceeds in this way, expanding furtively as Séraphine serves her dual masters, painting and mopping floors. The film doesn’t really contract into shape until Séraphine rumbles into Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), an art collector whose apartment she cleans three days a week. Their interaction gives the film a secondary story — how long before Wilhelm discovers her? — to overlap the primary one, which is whether someone of Séraphine’s low standing will ever find the time to develop her talents. She introduces Wilhelm to inspirational drinking, urging on him a glass of her homemade “energy wine,” an elixir he can barely stomach. He, meanwhile, finds her curious, but knows nothing of her talent. Wilhelm himself is something of an outsider, easily offending a roomful of people until, in a somewhat predictable episode, he notices a painting by Séraphine in a corner. He becomes more and more persuaded by her genius until he’s buying up her work even before it’s finished. This is not trivial; Wilhelm Uhde was the first collector to buy Picasso. But just as he’s assembling her work for a gallery, German troops descend upon Paris, forcing Wilhelm, who is German, to return to his country else risk appearing as a traitor.

That Séraphine manages to feel natural while exploring the ecstasy of inspiration is astonishing. Few films have created such an understated depiction of the artistic process, a fact due largely to the performance of Yolande Moreau, who was awarded a French César for Best Actress. (The film won in seven major categories.) Her performance is mysterious, furtive and unexpectedly moving, and the film, shot in brief episodes to underscore the hectic nature of her life, never feels hectic itself. The scenes incandesce like bulbs glowing on and off. Séraphine resembles another lasting portrait of a French artist, La Vie en Rose, in that both women are great talents unprepared for great success. And success does find Séraphine when, years later, Wilhelm is again visiting Paris and notices her art in a regional art show. Their reunion is a blissful, if brief, second act, during which Séraphine experiences some notoriety. The final act is, of course, the tragic one. History again conspires against her, but the greater enemy, so delicately hinted at in Séraphine, is that the visions so instrumental to her art ultimately engulf her.

Séraphine opens Friday, Sept. 11, at the Bijou.