Music Box Films // 2008 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // March 24th, 2010
Lift up the heart of your faithful Séraphine.
Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau, Vagabond), later known as Séraphine de Senlis, is a simple woman who works odd menial jobs to afford a little food and some art supplies. When she's not laboring over laundry, she labors over canvas; painting out of need, fully of the belief that she is compelled to paint by the angels in her ear. Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German art dealer staying in a boarding house where she works happens to see one of her paintings. In Séraphine, Uhde sees a fabulous undiscovered talent and vows to show her work to the public. With the onset of the World War and Séraphine's slowly fracturing mind, Uhde may not have the time to make her famous. In Séraphine, director Martin Provost (Le ventre de Juliette) has made a beautiful portrait of this artist, showing the beauty of the person and the art, without romanticizing or condescending to the quirks that compelled the artist to write.
Were she alive today, Séraphine de Senlis would be known as an Outsider Artist. She never took an art class and nobody in her life made art; she didn't paint to become famous or make a statement. Her only desire was to satisfy the angels who command her. A quiet, socially maladjusted woman teetering on the brink of sanity; she simply plows ahead, working innumerable jobs, painting every second she can, and never sleeping. She didn't even intended to show her work to anybody, but her legacy was built out of the simple happenstance of Uhde noticing a painting in a corner. Without that, her work never would have been seen, and we would have missed out on one of the more unique visions in 20th century art.
Her legacy may have dimmed over the decades, but the power of her work remains unchanged. She painted nature, but a hellish, tortured nature that appears to move. She made her paints secretly by hand, using materials she finds on the job and while wandering. Her palette is vibrant and alive, the fruits and leaves made from these colors pop off the canvas. Séraphine had a lust for nature that is apparent in her work, and her communal attitude toward trees and bugs contributed to people taking her as insane.
Sane or not, none of that mattered to Uhde, who patronized her and the production of her art. He may have been little more than a shiftless art dealer, but his money gave Séraphine a life of freedom to create that she never could have had otherwise. When they first meet and Uhde compliments her work, she takes it as mockery. She slowly gets used to the idea of herself as an artist, however. Until that moment, she was a simple devout peasant. Now, she starts to think of herself as an artist, with all the self-serving egotism that comes along with it. Her paintings sell and now she has money; never having it before, she spends extravagantly and doesn't understand when Uhde tells her he can't afford it. "Just sell another batch of paintings," she arrogantly suggests to the art dealer, not understanding that the depression is on and there are no buyers. Here, her naivety about the world combines with her notion of what is supposed to happen, and her mind quickly starts to fail.
Yolande Moreau has thrown herself completely into the role of Séraphine and her performance is simply brilliant. Her's is an incredibly detailed and realistic portrayal of the artist. I quickly lost sight of the fact that an actor was onscreen; she is Séraphine through and through. Witness her painting, hunched over on the floor, furiously scratching out lines, screeching hymns at the top of her lungs in pure ecstasy. Séraphine actively avoids letting people into her home; to see such a display in action is to see some serious craziness, and her potential callers are better off. Everything from her tiny speaking voice to the odd sounds she makes to the way she grabs at things. All of it makes sense, and this is a near perfect performance. It would be unfair to judge the rest of the cast based on Moreau. They are all up to the task, but they just can't compare. Ulrich Tukur is effective as Uhde, who wavers between sleaziness and philanthropy, never quite letting us know for sure whether his motivation to help Séraphine comes from a place of good will or an aching in his pocketbook. The erudite pretension of Uhde contrasts beautifully with Séraphine's simple honesty and, together, they make up the beating heart of the film.
Provost employs an understated style for Séraphine, a sometimes stagy, classical look that favors steady frames and long takes over quick edits and kinetic camera movement. He does well to keep the focus off the filmmaking and on the actors, letting them move the story with their actions and words. Music is sparingly used in the film, the sound design instead a menagerie of natural sound. It's nicely used and something of a character unto itself but, as a soundtrack nut, it isn't my favorite style.
We received a screener copy for review, so the picture and sound will hopefully be vastly improved from what we have here. Unfortunately, it looks and sounds terrible, and I look forward to seeing what the quality truly is.
Séraphine is one of the best artist biopics you're likely to see.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated