Prior to Séraphine, I’d never heard of filmmaker Martin Provost, the stars of his film or, for that matter, the subjects of the movie, painter Séraphine Louis/Séraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau) and art collector/critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). As a result, I was approaching this biopic with no preconceptions—other than the slight hesitance that accompanies the prospect of the biographical genre. At its best, the biographical drama is as good and as valid a genre as any other, but there’s a tendency for such films to fall into the falsely reverential or the simplistically silly. Thankfully, Séraphine does neither, though it might be a little too slowly paced for some tastes—at least for its first 30 minutes.
The film explores the life and work of the primitive painter known as Séraphine de Senlis, especially as concerns her relationship with the man who discovered her, Wilhelm Uhde. The first part of the film establishes a picture of Séraphine as a strange fixture in the small town of Senlis. She’s preoccupied and intensely religious, working odd jobs and spending her money on painting supplies. There are references to mental problems, but all in all she’s accepted as an eccentric figure in the town. That changes—or begins to—when Wilhelm Uhde comes to town and rents from one of her employers. Uhde—a critic and art collector known for being the first to buy paintings by Picasso and Braque and for discovering Henri Rousseau—has fled Paris due to anti-German sentiment over the looming world war.
Uhde inadvertently discovers Séraphine’s talents, and proceeds to encourage and support her painting—either in spite or because of her strangeness. There’s something fascinating about this mystical—or just plain delusional—woman who claims to be guided by her guardian angel. The weird blend of naïveté and canniness makes her impossible to decipher—both for Uhde and the viewer. One senses—as in the scene where Uhde assuages her odd jealousy by revealing his homosexuality—that Séraphine understands more than it might appear, but the film suggests more than it states. Bits of information are dropped into the mix, but they’re never put in place for you. The film forces you to read it yourself.
While the approach to the dramatic content of Séraphine is refreshing, it’s also occasionally frustrating. It’s understandable that Uhde’s support would be forcibly withdrawn due to the war, but why does it take nine years after the war and a chance notice of something in a newspaper for him to reconnect with her? The film never raises the question—nor, oddly, does Séraphine herself, though her acceptance of this probably stems from a lifetime of being accustomed to desertion and rejection. The film also fails—at least from my perspective—to completely sell the merits of her work. They’re certainly odd and occasionally disturbing, but they seem to be more curious decorations than particularly noteworthy paintings. That, however, may simply be a matter of personal taste.
Where the film scores—and scores very highly—is in the characterizations of Séraphine and Uhde, both of whom emerge as wholly formed complex creations. But they’re complete only in the sense of their innate sense of reality. The film allows them to retain a degree of mystery—suggesting that it is simply not possible for either the filmmaker or the viewer to know them any better than this. They keep their innermost selves to themselves. That—along with the excellent performances from Ulrich Tukur and especially from Yolande Moreau—is what makes the film something special. Note: If you want to catch this film in the theater, hurry, because it’ll be gone after Thursday. Not rated, but contains mature thematic material and brief nudity.