Review: French film ‘Seraphine’ transcends stereotypes | AspenTimes.com

Review: French film ‘Seraphine’ transcends stereotypes

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Contributed photoYolande Moreau stars in the French film "Seraphine," opening Saturday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

The first thing we are told in “Seraphine” is that the setting is Senlis, France, and that the year is 1913. But as the story unfolds, what we see and feel is something closer to the Dark Ages – a world that is more cruel, primitive and ancient than the 20th century.

Martin Provost’s film is a palette of small, dark rooms. The outdoors exists, but any sunshine there is muted, barely in evidence; the weather forecast is eternally gloom. Some of the people in this landscape are good, very good; others are intolerably nasty – but all of them are ultimately overwhelmed by punishing circumstances. It’s not the Plague, but given the environment, World War I and the Depression cast a shadow over the story that is medieval in tone.

Even if the look of the film glowed with warm light, the characters practiced random acts of kindness, and war, prejudice and economic collapse were banished, “Seraphine” would still have that Dark Ages mood, thanks to its title character. The middle-aged woman Seraphine is enormous in body; being badly stooped somehow only makes her look bigger. Her size alone makes her almost monstrous; add in the shabby clothes draped over her, the bewildered and faraway look in her eyes, the shuffling gait, the grunting, and she could be a creature from out of a 16th century sewer.

In any event, she is treated as such: Seraphine works as a charwoman at an inn in the Parisian countryside, and the owner of the inn takes all of her considerable misery out on Seraphine. Seraphine responds by becoming subservient and nearly mute.

But Seraphine is something else as well: an artist, based on the real-life painter who became known as Seraphine de Senlis. Seraphine has a mystical brand of religious belief, going to church alone, hanging out occasionally with a pair of nuns. Her talent seems to be connected to her faith: She is unschooled, and her work falls under the category of “naïve” art.

Though when it comes to her art, there is something almost canny about Seraphine, who makes her own paint (out of animal blood pilfered from the inn kitchen); insists on collecting every cent coming to her (and then some), to spend on art supplies. She is fiercely protective of the time and privacy she needs to paint. And she has a primitive but absolute confidence in her own ability, or at least her mission.

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A guest at the inn, a German named Wilhelm Uhde, treats Seraphine with the condescending indifference to which she has become accustomed. Until he sees one of her paintings. Wilhelm is a top-level art dealer; among his earlier discoveries had been Picasso. Wilhelm convinces Seraphine that he can make a career for her as a painter.

The cold, dark world, however, has other plans. First, World War I forces Wilhelm to flee France before he can get Seraphine’s work exhibited. Years later, there is a fortuitous turn of events as artist and dealer are reunited. Seraphine, now fully believing that fate is on her side, prepares to buy a chateau, and, bizarrely, a wedding gown. Her economic fortunes may have improved, but her mental condition has deteriorated.

Then the Depression clobbers Europe, and Seraphine, her castle, her prospects for being a prominent artist, are swept away in an instant.

“Seraphine” might have become a dreary portrayal of how even the best parts of humankind are no match for the uncaring universe. But actress Yolande Moreau gives Seraphine enormous sympathy, complexity and humanity. The performance transcends stereotypes, allowing us a look into the mystery of art, and one strange but beguiling artist.

stewart@aspentimes.com