The winner of 7 French Academy Awards, including best film, best original screenplay, and best actress, Martin Provost’s Séraphine stars Yolande Moreau as painter Séraphine Louis, aka Séraphine de Senlis, a plain, poor, uncultured, devoutly Catholic, and emotionally unbalanced housekeeper who became known as a major artistic talent in the early 20th century.
Written by Provost and Marc Abdelnour, Séraphine focuses on the artist’s relationship with avant-garde art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (played by Ulrich Tukur), who one day discovered that his cleaning lady in the town of Senlis was a masterful painter.
A sleeper hit in France, Séraphine has been met with raves on this side of the Atlantic as well. The LA Weekly’s Scott Foundas called it "the best movie made about a painter since Maurice Pialat’s exquisite Van Gogh in 1991 — and one of the only ones that truly grasps how close artistic genius dwells to the realm of madness," while in New York Magazine David Edelstein enthused that Séraphine is "sublime … one of the most evocative films about an artist I’ve ever seen."
Martin Provost’ Seraphine tells the story of Seraphine de Senilis, a lower class middle aged woman whose love of painting enabled her to persevere through the hardships of poverty and self-doubt, ultimately becoming one of the most respected avant-garde artists in France.
The film introduces Seraphine as a soft spoken hotel housekeeper who meticulously completes her task for meager wages. She is looked down upon by her employers because of her shaggy appearance and lack of lady-like grace. Seemingly uninterested in the politics of the world around her, Seraphine Collects her small wages and purchases small containers of paint. Not being able to afford every color that she needs, she creates paint using the resources available to her (using cow’s blood and candle wax for red). Eventually a new tenant named Wilhelm Uhde arrives at the hotel. Uhde is a German art collector who seems to have become disillusioned with the art world. Upon seeing one of Seraphine’s painting; he is newly impassioned and is eager to display Seraphine’s art to the world. At first Seraphine is hesitant but eventually allows Uhde to display her art to a selection of dealers and traders. The film then follows Seraphine through her brief moments of success and critical approval to her tragic downfall, maintaining the themes of perseverance and dedication in spite of social shortcomings.
Unlike many biopics which usually tell a simple narrative story of a historical figure, Seraphine tells not only the story of Seraphine but also analyzes the circumstances which lead to her anti-social behavior and secretive love of art. Class separation is a major motif that runs throughout the film, as numerous times we see Seraphine being condescended to our taunted by those around her. Provost is possibly suggesting that if it were not for her isolated and impoverished lifestyle, she would not have been able to produce the work that she did. The idea of using hardship for inspiration is also present in the character of Wilhelm Uhde as he is the only one who recognizes the potential that Seraphine has. He discovers her at a time in which he had lost interest in the world or art, he sympathizes with the emotions that could have inspired such work, and sees the vision that Seraphine was trying to create. When Uhde becomes more successful as an art dealer, he abandons Seraphine leaving her alone and penniless, no longer being able to relate to the desolate and weary mindset that he once shared with her. Although subtle and slow with
Provost analyzes not only the life of a troubled artist, but also gives his take on the dangers of success and human beings innate need for connection and emotional release.
Yolande Moreau delivers and excellent and brave performance as the troubled artist, balancing the emotions of humor, intense concentration and despair. While viewing her portrayal of the character the viewer is always toying with the idea that Seraphine mentally ill, but the brilliance of her art prevents us from jumping to that conclusion. Even by the film’s tragic conclusion there is still a question of whether or not Seraphine is in fact mentally ill, or is it simply that the people around her were not able to appreciate a person of her eccentricity and brilliance.
Seraphine is a simple slow, and contemplative film, tells the story of a seemingly forgotten contributor to the world of art that was misunderstood and underappreciated in her life time. Provost gives a great critic on the human condition, while showing how perseverance and dedication will lead to success no matter how brief or fickle.