By day, she scrubs floors, cleans houses, washes dirty linens in the river. By night, she paints. She is Séraphine, a cleaning woman in her fifties. Later, she is better known as Séraphine de Senlis.
Séraphine (2008), a film based on the life of the early 20th Century French painter Séraphine Louis (1864-1942), won 7 César Awards in France including Best Film of 2009 and Best Actress for Yolande Moreau as Séraphine. True to its subject matter, director Martin Provost has crafted an aesthetically pleasing work of art. The pace is slow for the viewer to savour every bit. Moreau’s charming portrayal of Séraphine is captivating. She wins my heart from the first scene.
It is gratifying to be noticed, to be confirmed of one’s worth. To the dismissive eye, an ageing cleaning woman is nothing to deserve another glance. Makes me think of the concierge Renée in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. In one of the apartment units which Séraphine cleans, a new tenant just moves in. He is Wilhelm Uhde, a noted art critic and collector of Picasso. He is also the one who has discovered Henri Rousseau of the naive art style, a term referring to untrained talents, a term to which Uhde doesn’t subscribe.
And right there in his rental unit Uhde notices another hidden gem of this style, his own housecleaner Séraphine. Uhdle is deeply moved by her work and soon becomes her patron. He stops her from mopping his floor, leads her out into the garden, seats her down in a wrought-iron chair and tells her she has talent. It is a wrought-iron chair that I notice since that scene, and it recurs later in the film, a metaphor for aesthetics, style and elegance, antidote to the crude reality of Séraphine’s life.
Séraphine loves nature, and nature rewards her with inspiration.
Her subjects are mainly flowers and fruits, their design exquisite, natural, colourful and lively.
Deep religious fervour soon drives Séraphine to relentless, maddening obsession to paint. She claims to follow voices from her guardian angel. She would sing hymns at the top of her voice while painting through the night, waking up in the morning on the floor with her work-in-progress. She gradually becomes delusional and out of touch with reality.
Why is it that giftedness and mental illness often find affinity for each other? Van Gogh comes to mind. And only recently did I read this Guardian article drawing uncanny similarities between Séraphine and Susan Boyle.
As WWI draws near, the impending conflicts push Uhde out of France and back to Germany. They reunite after the War. Sadly, the painter’s growing achievement brings about more severe delusions. Later the economic depression ends contact between patron and artist for a while.
When Uhde finds Séraphine some years later, she is locked up in an insane asylum. This latter part of the movie is a bit uncomfortable to watch. Uhde is unable to communicate with her as she is restrained in a straight jacket, tied to the bed weeping in anguish.
Months pass and in 1935 Uhde visits her again. He needs to tell Séraphine her paintings are selling. Her condition has stabilized by now but upon doctor’s advice, Uhde should just leave her be. There in the asylum at Asile de Clermont Uhde quietly pays for her a private room with a view out towards a lush green meadow and full, leafy trees.
The ending that follows is one of the best I’ve seen in films. We see Séraphine being led into the room. She sits on her bed, dazed, unfeeling. Then she turns her head and notices the door leading outside to the trees and green meadow. The next three silent minutes bring us to a poignant closing:
Séraphine slowly gets up and opens the door. She sees a wrought-iron chair on the porch. The frame on screen here is roughly split in two. On the left side is her room with a sterile, wooden chair of the asylum. On the right we see the porch outside with the wrought-iron chair, not unlike the one she had sat on while being declared a talent by Uhde years before. She tentatively steps out of her room, touches and examines the chair, then picks it up and slowly carries it with her up a green hill to a full, beautiful tree. From afar, we see her look at the tree, put the chair under its shade, sit down and tilt her head back, fully relaxed.
In the silence with just the wind blowing, it seems we can hear her gratified sigh of relief, being back in nature, coming home.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
CLICK HERE to watch Séraphine’s official trailer on Youtube. You’ll be able to see the ending scene. But of course, nothing compares to watching the film in its entirety.
A NOTE ABOUT MOVIE PHOTOS: These images are used according to the Fair Use guidelines for criticism, comment and educational purposes. CLICK HERE for more information. CLICK HERE to read the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Society For Cinema Studies, “Fair Usage Publication of Film Stills” by Kristin Thompson.