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Review: 'Séraphine'

A tenderly drawn portrait of French naive painter Séraphine de Senlis, who was discovered by the German art collector whose house she cleaned.

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Movies about artists are generally made by filmmakers who aren't. This explains why most films about the agonies and ecstasies of artistic creation are so phony. But there is a more justifiable reason for the mediocrity: It's very difficult to dramatize the throes of creation. Too many "aha!" moments can throw you right out of a movie.

"Séraphine" is a rare example of a film that does justice to the mysteriousness of artistic invention. Perhaps this is because the artist in question, Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), also known as Séraphine de Senlis, was a religiously devout housekeeper from the outskirts of the Seine Valley who lived an almost monastic life. With no training of any kind, she created canvasses, many of them floral abstractions, that were startlingly avant-garde – what today would be called "naive" art, or "outsider" art. For about 20 years, beginning before World War I, she worked away at her paintings while often living in dire poverty. She was committed to a mental institution in 1932, where she died 10 years later at 78, virtually forgotten by the art community.

The movie that has been made from her life by writer-director Martin Provost has an extraordinary purity, a humility, that is almost a state of grace. The film is really about two people: Séraphine, whom we first see as a cleaning lady at age 48, and Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), the German art collector whose rented home in Senlis, France, she cleans. Uhde was already renowned for his eye – he was the first buyer of Picasso and introduced the "naive" primitive "Le Douanier" Rousseau. When he discovers that the somewhat clumpy and bewildered woman mopping his floors is a prodigy, a relationship – part business, part soulful – develops between them that extends, with interruptions, through the next two decades.

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