Film : Séraphine: The artist as visionary
Little known in the States, the French modern primitive artist Séraphine Louis is brought hauntingly and beautifully to life in "Séraphine" (2008). The Martha's Vineyard Film Society will bring this much-lauded movie to the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Friday, Oct. 23.
Directed by Martin Provost, "Séraphine" stars Yolande Moreau, who also appeared in the box office hit "Amélie." She won for her performance one of the film's seven Césars (the French equivalent of an Oscar).
Not many fiction films avoid the pitfalls of cliché-ridden tributes to great artists. In "Séraphine's" case, add to all that the character's madness, religious ecstasy, and general condescension toward women painters. Mr. Provost deserves great credit for creating a portrait of this simple, untrained charwoman-painter that remains respectful of her talents.
The audience meets a barely visible Séraphine, also known as Séraphine de Senlis, as she wades fully clothed in moonlit water, her hand trailing across its surface. In time it becomes clear that such communions with the natural world serve as an important source of inspiration for the ecstatic state she enters when she paints. Soon, though, the movie shows her scrubbing floors at her day job as a house cleaner.
As the first cut demonstrates when it next takes the audience to the façade of a gothic cathedral, the editing of this film is a marvel of subtlety and insight. The inspiration for Séraphine's painting comes foremost from her religious belief.
With its emphasis on silence and natural effects, the soundtrack is a reminder of how modern technology, with its perpetual access to music and talk, has jaded people's sense of hearing. As Séraphine hurries to mass before work, her metal heels click on the cobblestones. It is a motif that will recur throughout the movie.
Her voice stays just barely out of synch with the church choir, foreshadowing a personality that the audience will come to understand is eccentric to the point of madness. Each element of the soundtrack reflects the same care and attention to detail.
Individual images, too, resonate like still lifes. Sometimes the camera lingers on the artist's hands or the way Séraphine sweeps up bread crumbs and drops them into her apron pocket. Other times it stops to savor the grace of a stone bridge or her black straw hat -- typical for the time and province.
Fortuitously for this unappreciated genius, the prominent German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) rents a house that Séraphine cleans in the village of Senlis outside of Paris. While her clients and members of the community have ridiculed her painting, Mr. Uhde, an early admirer of Picasso who was responsible for discovering Rousseau, is captivated by her work.
Buying her powerfully rendered paintings of fruit and flowers, Mr. Uhde becomes Séraphine's patron. Then World War I intrudes, and he flees to Germany. But his encouragement has its impact.
Ten years later, when he returns to a nearby town with his lover and his sister, Mr. Uhde rediscovers Séraphine and transforms her life. With his support, she becomes recognized as an artist and acquires the material rewards that go with her newfound success.
Once again, destiny intrudes, though. This time the culprit is the 1929 stock market crash. Mr. Uhde can no longer support Séraphine, and she grows increasingly unhinged. She spends her last days at the insane asylum in Clermont.
The director does not need to make judgments about the cause of her madness. This is a film where every detail contributes to creation of a world both authentic and ultimately unknowable. It is a gem, and has quadrupled the number of visits to the museum at Senlis where some of Séraphine's works are housed.
"Séraphine," Friday, Oct. 23, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8; $5 for M.V. Film Society members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards writes on the arts for The Times.