THE MOVIE: Early-20th-century painter Séraphine de Senlis had an electrifying vision of nature. In her work, leaves quiver like tongues of flame, clusters of fruit are writhing serpents, and flowers explode like fireworks. This devoutly religious woman spent most of her life in poverty, working as a domestic servant in a small town north of Paris. It wasn't until the age of 41 that she began to paint, at the behest, she said, of her guardian angel. Martin Provost's Séraphine is the story of her discovery by a prominent modern-art collector.
Séraphine (Yolande Moreau) is working as a housekeeper for Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur)--collector of works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Rousseau--when he stumbles upon one of her paintings. He is just beginning to help her break into the art world when World War I intervenes. A German, Uhde is forced to flee France. When he sees Séraphine again, it is more than a decade later. She is old and poor and more talented than ever. Uhde becomes her patron and, for once, life goes well for her. Freed of her obligation to scrub floors and wash linens, she paints, and delights in the luxuries money brings.
Watching the movie is an engrossing, almost tactile experience. The cinematography is self-consciously painterly. Doorways and windows act as frames and many scenes have the dark, blurry feel of a Rembrandt. But Séraphine herself, brilliantly portrayed by Moreau, gives the movie an earthy immediacy. Frumpy and often barefoot, she walks with a purposeful lumber. She climbs trees, squelches in the muddy riverbank to collect clay for her homemade paints, and pees outside in an open field, gazing ecstatically at the sunlight coming through the leaves overhead. There is little dialogue--Séraphine is a loner, and not much of a conversationalist. Soft music, wind, and the main character's tuneless singing in Latin dominate the soundtrack.
As a closeted homosexual and a "Boche"--at the time, a derogatory French term for Germans--Uhde is in some ways as much of a loner as Séraphine. The pair is brought together by her talent, but their relationship is an awkward one. It is fascinating to watch them negotiate the gulf between their social classes, particularly at the beginning, when Séraphine is both Uhde's new artistic discovery and the woman who mops his floor.
In the end, Séraphine's religious ecstasy, the force that moved her to paint and sing and climb trees, pushed her over the edge. In 1932, she was admitted to an insane asylum and never painted again. It's a tragic story, but the dignity and inner joy Moreau gives her character are what lingers after the credits roll.