French sleeper hit, “Séraphine” garners well-deserved praise

By Cal Scannell

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With vivid visuals and the stunning performance of Yolande Moreau, “Séraphine,” now showing at the Pleasant Street Theater, will capture viewers with a sensitive portrayal of the little know painter Séraphine de Senlis. The French sleeper hit has earned seven César Awards, similar to the Academy Awards in France, including Best Actress and Best Picture. The film focuses on the life and work of Séraphine, who worked as a maid by day and painted by night to create decorative and well-ordered floral designs that at the same time pulse with an other-worldly energy.

The story goes that while living and working as a maid in a convent, Séraphine received instruction from her guardian angel to paint. Obeying her divine calling, Séraphine worked odd jobs and scuttled around town collecting wood panels and ingredients to blend her own paints, with which she created crude and colorful floral designs. The film opens when she takes a job keeping house for a German art collector, M. Wilhelm Uhde, who discovers her talent. As a collector of amateur painters he was one of the first to deal works by Picasso, Braque and Le Douanier Rousseau and in Séraphine’s work too, he recognizes shreds of artistic genius and nurtures her talent. The approach of World War II however soon separates the two. In his absence Séraphine continues to work with religious devotion, all the while remaining in conversation with her muse from above.

Years later, Wilhelm returns to France and comes across Séraphine’s more recent work at a local artists’ show in Senlis. There he discovers the incredible progress Séraphine has made, and after tracking her down, becomes her patron. But the dramatic change in situation that his patronage brings to Séraphine proves too much for her, and though already a bit odd, Séraphine quickly loses her mind. Her mental deterioration comes to a head in one of the final scenes when Séraphine rises early one morning and dressed in a fine silk wedding gown (made upon the instruction of her guardian angel) parades through town distributing silver ladles and candlesticks to the townsfolk.

Though overall a strong film, the film does a particularly wonderful job depicting Séraphine’s art practice, which she viewed as a religious activity with her hand guided by her guardian angel. She paints in the confines of her small one-room apartment in the dim light of tens of candles placed in an alter-like arrangement surrounding her canvas. Emphasizing the spiritual dimension of her practice, Séraphine sings in a high choral voice that trembles with religious fervor that, at the same time, borders on insanity.

When describing her work to a viewer, Séraphine explains, “my inspiration comes from above.” True to her word, the paintings seem energized by some divine dimension, with flowers that seem to crawl up the canvases. One awestruck viewer in the film remarks, “it moves, like eyes, like scarred flesh.” Séraphine responds, explaining that she herself doesn’t fully understand the images she creates when possessed by the artistic spirit. “It scares me, what I’ve done,” she confesses.

Yolande Moreau, who earned the prestigious César Award for Best Actress flawlessly portrays the eccentric, apple-shaped Séraphine with gnarly hands and a glassy look in her eyes. The award is well deserved as her performance draws viewers in with her total lack of vanity and effortless detachment from her surroundings. She also does an incredible job communicating the kind of alienation that characterizes many artists, while at the same time fueling their artistic pursuits. Though Séraphine’s closeness to nature and detachment from people ultimately manifests itself as insanity, her unique and profound understanding of the world pervades her work. Her paintings possess a passionate, unrestrained quality and vividness of color while at the same time conveying the underlying order and balance of the universe.

The film also offers an interesting look into the mind of avant-garde collector Wilhelm Udhe, shedding light on the obsession that drives the art world, but is poorly understood by those outside of it. “A collection interprets a person’s spiritual education,” Wilhelm explains. By featuring a collector who recognized the power of artworks produced by, at the time, unrecognized artists (including Picasso), the film provides insight into the motives for collecting works from amateur artists on the sole basis of the spiritual force of the pieces, as opposed to their monetary value.

Provost’s careful treatment of themes of alienation, spirituality and the true value of art make “Séraphine” a thought-provoking feature. Though the film drags a bit at times, it redeems itself with the sensitivity of the story, the subjects it illuminates and the incredible acting. “Séraphine” is playing at the Pleasant Street Theater until Thursday, October 8. Tickets are $8.50 for adults, $7.50 for students.