Thursday, August 27, 2009
Portrait of an artist as a cleaning lady
A little-known painter who died in 1942, Seraphine de Senlis spent much of her life working as a domestic. She cleaned houses, but spent her evenings painting, sometimes using blood taken from the local butcher shop as pigment. Spreading her canvases on the floor and working by candlelight, she developed a style that some critics dubbed "modern primitivism."
A woman of mystical bent, Seraphine did not have an ordinary muse; she believed that God had commanded her to paint. She also believed that she had a winking, intimate relationship with the Virgin Mary, revered in a shrine in Seraphine's sparsely furnished room. Not surprisingly, Seraphine wound up in an insane asylum.
That's an interesting enough story, but director Martin Provost's Seraphine exhibits an equally fascinating feel for the physical world that Seraphine inhabited. The rustle of wind in the trees has a nearly palpable quality in Provost's Seraphine, a movie that won seven Cesars, including best picture and best actress.
Once you've seen the movie, you'll understand why the actress playing the title character was honored. Yolande Moreau, the Belgian actress who portrays Seraphine, gives an utterly unselfish and deeply committed performance. Plain and portly, Seraphine isn't the sort of character who endears herself to us or to the residents of Senlis, the town in France's Picardy region where she resides. She may be a saintly figure or she may be mad, perhaps a bit of both. Seraphine grows as an artist, but never entirely abandons the awkward, lumbering personal style that defines her. Moreau's performance proves unforgettable.
Commendably, Provost never suggests that insanity should be regarded as a vital ingredient in creativity. This is not the story of a tortured artist but of a particular life that was spent producing art marked by startling freshness. Had a German critic (Ulrich Tukur) not discovered Seraphine's work, she probably would have lived in obscurity. She wasn't looking for fame.
Tukur's Wilhelm Uhde saw something powerful and original in Seraphine's work. He encouraged her to pursue her talent. The German-born Uhde had to leave France when World War I broke out. He returned after the war, and, among other tasks, began to build up Seraphine's artistic ego. The unsophisticated Seraphine, who tended to take things literally, couldn't understand how a ravaged economy could force Uhde to postpone a planned exhibition of her work. Seraphine, who initially worked for Uhde as a maid, felt betrayed. She began to develop expectations.
Seraphine encourages us to think about the undefinable nature of talent. Sometimes -- as in the case of Seraphine -- it seems to burst from nowhere, establishing itself in ways that are undeniable but mysterious. When Seraphine sits alone, under a tree, listening to the whisper of the wind, it's as if the world is speaking only to her. Perhaps it is.