The French artist Séraphine Louis, otherwise known as Séraphine of Senlis, spent her life mired in poverty, employed as a humble housekeeper; enjoying only the most fleeting recognition for her craft before madness engulfed her.Her spectacular gift, coupled with her ignominious life and demise, is the sort of filmic gold that in lesser hands would’ve had punters crying buckets; but Martin Provost’s delicate, tentative portrait is an earnest, engrossing and crucially unsentimental examination of the artist and her inspiration. It’s a fine film, bolstered significantly by an exceptional turn from Yolande Moreau as the titular Séraphine. It deservedly—and please excuse me the pun—cleaned up at the 2009 César Awards.
Senlis,1914. Séraphine Louis is an outsider extraordinaire: her lowly status, discernable instability and earthy, unkempt appearance confine her to servitude. She toils in the darkness and in environs starved of colour. Yet Séraphine finds considerable release from her domestic drudgery through communing with nature. As the film opens we first catch a glimpse of her wading through a river by night and later see her winch herself up a tree with improbable ease, to sit contentedly in the embrace of its branches. She bathes naked in the river and later, whilst out strolling and to her companions’ visible discomfort, enthusiastically wraps her arms around a tree. The sequences where Séraphine takes to the fields are filmed with such beguiling lushness that the cool breeze almost whistles off the screen.
It unfolds that her uninhibited relationship with the natural world has manifested itself in the production of a series of vibrant paintings; themselves, in part, the products of nature. Her palette comes from—amongst more conventional materials—an ingenious blend of twigs, leaves and blood which she squirrels away opportunely. She paints secretly, by candlelight, with a fervour fuelled by her religious devotion (she insists on raising her eyes when she is photographed alongside her work; explaining that her inspiration comes from above). Free from etiquette and convention, Séraphine wildly embraces the beauty of the natural world and, through her art, transforms what she sees in a way that even she doesn’t entirely understand—saying of her paintings, “When I look at them, what I’ve done scares me.”
Séraphine confronts that odd dichotomy: that remarkable artists can spring from any strata in society, but that works of art which are considered worthy are possessed only by the privileged few, often secreted away in their homes for their eyes alone, and that artists can struggle for years in abject poverty only for their art to be snaffled up for millions after their demise.
Here, Séraphine’s efforts are belittled by her rich, brittle employer, Madame Duphot, whose untrained eye cannot appreciate anything save realistic renderings. When Madame Duphot invites reclusive German art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde, (who has been hiding out in her lodgings incognito) to dinner with some of her ‘artist’ friends he instantly picks out Séraphine’s work, which has been discarded disrespectfully on the floor. Although he is astonished that this is the work of the woman who has been cleaning his rooms and making his tea, he is instantly taken with her style and reckons her a rare find.
The discovery invigorates the reclusive Uhde, who has hidden himself away—tormented by his, then scandalous, homosexuality. There is a beautifully handled moment of quiet appreciation where, after the surprise acquisition, he rushes to his room, as sprightly as a child, and lights a match to better inspect the piece.
Séraphine distinctly captures the tragic association between art and madness: depicting Séraphine Louis at her most prolific and acclaimed shortly before her descent into inexorable insanity. Through Yolande Moreau’s remarkably immersive performance, we also bear witness to the palpable mania of her artistic technique; it is as if she is possessed and working under ethereal instruction. Provost’s camera can sometimes barely make his subject out, shrouded as she frequently is in darkness. By taking us there regardless, Provost shows a willingness to embrace all aspects of Séraphine’s life and character. He exhibits an initial shyness about revealing her at work, with the camera peeping curiously over her shoulder as she paints and moving in slowly, cautiously as she furiously slashes at the canvas; managing to be both intimate in its gaze and unobtrusive in its respectful positioning.
As a whole Séraphine has a profound spirituality and, rather than putting its subject under a microscope, the film admirably conveys a sense of Séraphine as an artist, her passion, pleasures and her fragile mind. This is a gentle, quietly poignant piece with a sombre score and a subtle stylistic intimacy. It draws you close to this wonderfully unusual character, into her shadows and out with her into the glorious light.