IMAGE BANKER: Art collector William Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) sees the genius in scrubwoman Séraphine (Yolande Moreau).
Brush With Fame
'Séraphine' is an artist's biopic that doesn't succumb to easy answers about the roots of creation
By Richard von Busack
THE DATE and location give us a clue: "1914, Senlis." The year is the beginning of the modern era by anyone's calculation—the first year of the Great War, which broke out that autumn. But then there's "Senlis": where in the world is Senlis?
The haunting biopic Séraphine takes us there, to a silent small French village, with a full moon caught in the tree limbs and a lumpy, even troglodytic woman stirring the water of a creek with her hands. This woman clops up to pray in a stone church. It's shot at a low angle so that the heavily leafed shade trees around the church seem to be growing into the stones, like the jungle vines on the towers of Angkor Wat.
The impression at first is of remoteness and overgrown vegetation. Director Martin Provost fills up the screen with green—green and the shape of a hunched scrubwoman named Séraphine Louis, later known as Séraphine de Senlis. As played by Yolande Moreau, Séraphine is a burrower, head held down at most times and on all fours sometimes. She shuffles through her rounds in a shawl and a straw hat. She pockets the bread crumbs off the table of a woman she works for. More mysteriously, she bottles the melted wax from the church votive candles. Her newest job is tending a vacationing gentleman, a tenant for her regular employer, making tea for him and cleaning his room. She notes that he sketches sometimes and keeps to himself, nursing some great unhappiness.
We learn that this vacationing German is William Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a lawyer and Paris gallery owner, noted as the first biographer of the artist Henri Rousseau. He was a patron with the discernment to buy Picasso and Braque back in 1905. We also learn that Séraphine, a seemingly cracked charwoman, is an artist herself—that she uses the stolen church wax as fixative for her hand-ground pigments. This untrained artist paints pictures because the angels told her to do it.
Even art lovers can dread artist biopics; we seem to have had them all, both artists dying of neglect (so that we can tell ourselves we would have had the foresight to bring them comfort and money) or artists ruined by too much attention, like Basquiat and all other rock stars in every medium (surely we could have made them sober up).
Séraphine's story is unique. Firstly, it isn't conventional—she wasn't bought short and sold high, like Van Gogh. Uhde's find seems ridiculously convenient: a gallery owner discovering that his chambermaid is a brilliant unschooled artist. Such was the man's perception, though; the film doesn't mention this, but Uhde's first purchase of a Rousseau was from a janitor who had bought it as a souvenir of his time in Paris: demonstrating both that Rousseau had qualities apparent even before he was praised by critics, and that Uhde had a common touch, enough to make the deal. Sensibly, Séraphine makes him neither the hero of the story nor a symbol of the art market that gives a painter just enough to live on and takes his soul.
Provost takes an unsentimental view of Séraphine's art; her raptures and her loose grip on sanity are closed off to us. It's a private world we can watch from the outside and marvel at. Moreau inhabits this poor woman's shell: it's uncompromising, brawny acting. Provost provides a strong but not overstressed rhyme of this woman working in solitude with the life of this collector who had covert tendencies of his own.
After the war separates artist and patron, Uhde returns to Senlis to see a display of local artists, and he glances quickly at the giftless amateurs; later, he is grimly amused by a provincial critic praising Séraphine's work: the writer is a cracked-voiced singer trying to hit a high C. But Uhde doesn't really have words for Séraphine's art either; at one point, he stutters that it is "très, très belle."
The film gives us a good idea of the artist's style: we see still lifes of round fruit chained together with tough-looking stems, or trees flaming with fiery leaves. These are not comforting paintings; they have the febrile brightness of Van Gogh's art after the madness got him. Séraphine de Senlis was trying for the effect of light through stained glass, but what she got, it seems, is something more like internal combustion or radiation. Even less comforting is the sparkling madwoman's glint in Moreau's eyes, smiling as she stands propping up her canvases. She's modest but very wary, and a little dose of attention sets her off.
This very good movie hasn't received the attention it deserves in America. In France, Moreau won the César for best actress. Possibly the reason it doesn't have the word of mouth it needs is because the film doesn't traffic in the upbeat idea of artistic after-life. Provost doesn't partake in Séraphine's own religious raptures—it's hard to feel for the passions of a woman who decides to vandalize a church on God's orders.
Provost's reserve is as fascinating as Séraphine's vibrancy. As Moreau acts it, and Provost tells it, the feeling Séraphine had for trees was like the feelings of those pre-Columbian artists who had no word for art.
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