At the Arthouse
To fully understand how different the film cultures of France and the U.S. are, take a look at Séraphine, the biopic about Séraphine de Senlis, a French outsider artist (to use our current term for self-taught artists) of the 1920s and ‘30s. Director Martin Provost’s work is so patient, precise and understated that at times it feels severe. I can’t imagine a film with a similar sensibility even being made here, including as an independent film, but in France it won seven Caesars (their Oscar equivalent), including Best Picture and Best Actress.
Vive la difference, I suppose.
I would say that Belgian actress Yolande Moreau plays the title character, but “inhabits” is the better verb. Séraphine is a woman of few words; to a large extent Moreau’s performance consists of walking through the village and the surrounding fields with a forward lean, sometimes pushing a wheelbarrow, sometimes not. Very occasionally she stops for a look at the glory of God’s creation; at nature, that is. Like many outsider artists, Séraphine creates out of a religious vision; she has a heartfelt devotion to the Virgin Mary, and she feels that a guardian angel directs her hand when she paints.
At first it seems that the film wants us to pity her. The rigors of pre-World War I working class life are depicted in convincing detail. Séraphine is a cleaning woman and laundress—she hauls clothes in her wheelbarrow down to the river to wash them. And her patrons talk to her as if she were a child. Because she speaks so little, she doesn’t seem very smart, and it takes a while for the viewer to not patronize her as well, even as we see her at work on a painting. We expect that she’s working out of religious impulse, and may have no intellectual understanding of what she’s about.
We’re disabused of that notion when she meets the one person in the village capable of appreciating her work. Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) is a German art collector and gallery owner who just moved to the village from Paris. (Uhde is also based on a real life character.) Uhde had an avant-garde eye for art. He was an early collector and presenter of Picasso, and of the naifs (a term Uhde disapproves of) such as Henri Rousseau.
As soon as he sees Séraphine’s work, he knows that she’s gifted. But his praise gets her hackles up. “You think that because I clean your house that I’m not as smart as you,” she says, in what may be her longest utterance. Perhaps it’s this line of Séraphine’s that makes Uhde disapprove of the word “naïve.”
Despite her prickliness, Séraphine is in fact inspired by Uhde’s praise, and she begins painting with even more dedication. The film follows her as she realizes that she’s about to become famous, and then when she’s disappointed by Uhde’s disappearance during WWI. (He was a German in France, after all.) When Uhde finally returns, many years later, he finds that Séraphine has grown enormously as an artist. He’s going to represent her in Paris, and then she’ll be on her way. The film’s only real feel-good moment comes when Séraphine shows her enormous, beautiful canvases to the local townspeople, who are agog at what the cleaning lady has wrought. Apparently they’re the artist’s actual canvases. She never became famous, and her work isn’t well known. But how beautiful her nature paintings are. Even seen on a film screen, they’re alive in a mysterious way.
But just when she’s ready for her debut on the art world stage, history intervenes again. The Depression kills the art market. When Uhde tells her they’ll have to wait to put on her show, she literally loses her mind. She dons a wedding gown, and, now presumably a bride of Christ, is committed to the asylum where she lived until her death in 1942.
Director Provost doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeve. He doesn’t try to take us too deep inside Séraphine’s personal world. The connection between her enjoyment of nature and her paintings is strongly implied, but we see it objectively, from the outside. The film’s rigor may in fact cost it a few entertainment points, but it also grants it an unusual degree of authenticity. You believe that you’re watching the real Séraphine de Senlis, rather than an actor.