Séraphine (directed by Martin Provost), recently screened at the French Embassy is a movie about the triumph of human character over circumstance. The story begins with a woman hunched over, collecting mud and water from a pond. She wears a blue shawl. Her body is dowdy, and her dress shapeless. She hums to herself and looks about her with adorable, inquisitive blue-grey eyes. She likes to sit in a tree and smell the air with the breeze blowing her forever unkept hair about.
This is Séraphine, a servant for upper-middle class patrons in a fairly small town at the dawn of World War I in France. She is emotionally abused by her mistress, yet manages, despite the plethora of errands she runs during the day, to paint. And paint she does. By creating mixtures out of nature and some bought supplies. Some stolen, as well. However she needs to paint, she does. She sings to herself as she paints, much to the non-entertainment of the dwellers one floor below her. She is lovable, weird, as awkward as she is natural, and very, very much herself.
One of the tenants, Wilhelm Uhde, is renting a flat from Séraphine’s mistress. Uhde is a frontrunner in the art world and a well noted critic. He takes a liking to Séraphine and she to him. He likes her because he trusts her and the same vise versa. She lets him know she paints and the word of Séraphine’s exploits travels to her mistress; who of course, demands to see Séraphine’s work, only so she can mock it and tell Séraphine to give up. The mistress’s son, stands up for Séraphine’s work, and keeps his mother from throwing it away altogether. The piece is laying to the side on the wall in the dining room, when it is noticed by Uhde during a dinner. He demands to know who the painter is and the mistress reluctantly has to admit that it is Séraphine.
Uhde becomes Séraphine’s patron and protector. He has to encourage her to sell her work and she seems reluctant because she is afraid of losing her place. Of breaking with the traditions within her own life of servitude. But Uhde convinces her and she agrees to exhibit and sell her work.
It is a “pure” relationship as Uhde informs Séraphine that he will never marry a woman in his life. Uhde has to leave France as the War progresses but comes across her work at a local show many years after the War has ended. The two strike up a relationship once more and Séraphine’s art sells as part of what is known as the naïve genre. She continues to paint, but her relationship with Uhde is strained due to her spending habits. She spends more than is coming in and on the oddest things. Such as a wedding dress, when there is no actual wedding.
Séraphine’s eccentricities descend into a sad outright madness. She dons her wedding dress and by herself in bare feet, walks through the town knocking on doors and leaving empty silvered candleholders on the doorsteps. At the top of the town stairs are local authorities, waiting to take Séraphine away, in a van. She seems to know why they are there and submits without any confrontation. She just gets into the van, barefoot and in her beautiful dress. The cinematography throughout the film is breathtakingly clear, as if to reflect the purity of Séraphine’s soul and intentions.
Uhde attempts to visit Séraphine, but she is too far gone. He makes her more comfortable, by buying her a place where she can be alone. And the final scene is of Séraphine, sitting down on a chair in the middle of a field by herself under a large, comforting tree.
Séraphine had the courage to tell a story of a world that begins and ends within herself. She became known as Séraphine of Senlis. It is still not known exactly how her paintings were made. They are of fruits and trees, as if in a child’s dream.
By Sarah Bahl
The image is from madamepickwickartblog.com