Monday, September 21, 2009


On Saturday night, I saw Séraphine, starring Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur.

Séraphine de Senlis was a famous French painter who died in a mental institution in 1942. This film gives us a glimpse into her life from the time of her discovery until the time of her death, which proves to be a detriment because the subject is so fascinating.

Séraphine (played by the magnificent Yolande Moreau) when we meet her is a poverty-stricken housekeeper who bows her head in compliance with every order that is barked in her direction. She worked in a convent before serving private families, so she maintains a strong religious faith and ethic. She also hears from angels.

After her grueling hours of scrubbing and cleaning each day, she retreats to her small quarters to paint as the angels instruct her to. She creates lush portraits of scenery—flowers and fruits in vibrant hues that rival those of any fine artist.

A guest who comes to stay in the home where she works, Wilhelm Uhde (Tukur), stumbles upon a piece of her artwork and begins questioning its origins. The affluent homeowner tells the truth: her housekeeper painted it and she can't wait to get rid of it. Uhde is an art dealer who has made many notable discoveries in the art world and believes her work could sell.

He encourages Séraphine to keep developing her gift, then must flee the area because of the looming war. She does continue painting—using ingredients of her own creation mixed in with traditional paints—and hones her craft to impressive new levels.

How did she learn to do this? What was her childhood like? Did anyone else in her family have the gift? All of these questions go unanswered in the film, but crave to be asked.

By the time Uhde returns in the late 1920s, Séraphine has an arsenal of works available for his purchase and promotion. He gladly obliges and sends the always-poor artist into financial freedom.

Unfortunately, the story does not have a happy ending. Séraphine spends her riches very rapidly despite the approaching Depression and continues to hear the angels sending her messages. Her behavior grows more erratic until finally the townspeople have her committed.

Moreau's interpretation of this possibly schizophrenic artist was stunning, even if the film's pace was almost painfully slow. Because you can't help but care for this fragile soul, you stick with the story and continue to hope she will be rescued.

Of course, once Séraphine entered the hospital, she was never again aware that her talent was celebrated. She lived out her years in a lonely, confused state of medicated isolation.

Her work survived her and continues to thrive today in museums around France and exhibitions around the world. Also, one of the ingredients in her paintings has apparently served as an incredible preservative so the colors continue to appear as they were when she mixed them.

If only the angels she heard could show her how much joy her work brought to the world.


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