Review: Séraphine

Director: Martin Provost
Screenplay: Marc Abdelnour & Martin Provost
Producers: Milena Poylo & Gilles Sacuto
Starring: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviève Mnich
Year: 2008
Country: France, Belgium & Germany
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 120 min

The second of the big César winners I got sent over to review after The First Day of the Rest of Your Life was Séraphine, which practically swept the board, taking home seven awards including Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Actress. After watching the film I must say I wouldn’t argue with their choice. It may not be my favourite film of 2008/09, but it is nonetheless a subtly powerful work that pays great tribute to it’s subject matter.

Séraphine is based on the true life events of famed naïve artist Séraphine Louis (aka Séraphine De Senlis). A simple-minded soul with a heartfelt connection to nature and staunch religious beliefs, she spent most of her life working as a maid in a small town north of Paris at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. A renowned German art critic and dealer Wilhelm Uhde moved into an apartment that she cleaned and after stumbling upon a piece of her work, attempted to take her under his wing. He encouraged her to let her talent flourish, but was forced out of France with the onset of war in 1914 before he had chance to let the rest of the world witness it. Thirteen years later in 1927, Uhde came back to France and happened upon Séraphine’s work once more at a local art exhibition. This time he was able to properly launch her career and she achieved a short period of success until the Great Depression brought the wealthy clientele of the art world to it’s knees, forcing Uhde to stop buying her paintings. Séraphine struggled to cope with such fluctuations in her life and was eventually submitted to the psychiatric ward of a geriatric hospital where she lived out the rest of her days, never to paint again.

The film has a minimalist quality to it, with little dialogue throughout and a beautifully subtle score weaving in and around proceedings. Much of the time is spent observing Séraphine at work both scrubbing floors and creating masterpieces. The story itself is never over-dramatised either, which makes it occasionally slow and a little disengaging, but the quality of the film and the respect that director Martin Provost has for the subject always shines through. The scenes where we watch Séraphine painting are hypnotic and feel genuine. When we are allowed to see the finished pieces, their beauty is staggering. Obviously this is largely due to the quality of the art itself, but the cinematographer knows how to present it and the film’s treatment of what went into creating them helps elevate this.

Watching the film is a deeply sensory experience, with the earthy cinematography paying special attention to Séraphine’s hands as she works and as she senses the world around her – she famously used a variety of materials to create the rich colours which give life to her paintings. The sound design too is excellent, bringing individual small sounds to life rather than bombarding us with noise like most Hollywood films do these days. The scenes where Séraphine is ‘at one with nature’ so to speak are especially effective. The colours become more vibrant compared to the dimly lit interiors and the soundtrack focuses solely on the breeze, the birds in the trees and the rippling of the stream. We watch Séraphine embrace these things with all her soul. As she describes to Uhde in one scene, being outside makes her truly happy, something we witness when a serene glow washes over her face as the ageing lady clambers up trees and bathes naked in a river.

Yolande Moreau, who plays the titular character is wonderful in the role. She believably portrays Séraphine’s physical and emotional shortcomings without overplaying them and tenderly encapsulates the effect her art and attachment to nature has on her psyche. As Séraphine struggles to come to terms with the fact that exterior global issues are preventing her from achieving what she believes is her sacred reward, Moreau steers clear of grandstanding. She merely makes minor changes to her performance, extinguishing the fire in her eyes, leaving us with the shell of a human being who can’t understand the implications the rest of the world has on her own path.

This is a beautiful and lovingly made film that deserves all the acclaim it has gathered. It’s not perfect, some may feel it’s a little too slow and subtle for it’s own good, but it’s the most effective artist biopic I’ve ever come across, relaying a real sense of the craft and delving into the true heart of it’s subject rather than wasting time focusing on telling a story everyone already knows.

Séraphine is released on DVD in the UK through Metrodome on 29th March.