Dienstag, 29. September 2009

Film review: Seraphine



by Simone Kussatz

Movie biographies can be tricky. We only get to see a fictionalized version of what has once actually been. To please the majority’s tastes, biopics often focus too much on the external, instead of getting down to a character’s core. Undaunted by such constraints, “Séraphine”, a film directed and written by Martin Provost in 2008, which is an homage to French artist Séraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau), won multiple Césars (France’s version of the Oscar), although sobriety and discretion are its dominant tones. In her César winning role as the former shepherdess and housekeeper turned painter, Belgian actress Yolanda Moreau slowly blurs the tenuous gap between artistic genius and madness.

The film concentrates on the later years of devoutly catholic Séraphine’s life in Senlis, France, where she works as a servant in the temporary home of German avant-garde art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), who is impressed by her artistic ability. With Uhde’s encouragement and financial help, Séraphine receives her first group show exhibit with her work being displayed alongside Henri Rousseau’s.

Provost’s nuanced portrait leads us gently into the inner worlds of Séraphine. With her eagerness to evolve, her sensuality and authenticity, her need for artistic expression and love for nature, which is her source for comfort and inspiration, we learn to understand how Séraphine’s vulnerability will also soon break her.

Séraphine sheds light on a unique friendship between two people, who exist on the fringes of society. Uhde, because of his closeted homosexuality and Séraphine, because her social class does not allow her eccentric behavior. She hugs trees and swims nude in the rivers other women wash their clothes in. Their friendship is broken, however, when Uhde can’t keep up with his promise to exhibit her work again. Distressed about the news, Séraphine meanders deliriously through the streets, where people see her dressed in a wedding gown. Diagnosed with a mental illness, she’s locked up in the Clermont-de-l'Oise psychiatric hospital, where she dies alone after numerous straight jacket treatments.

This aspect of the film is particularly interesting and disturbing at the same time, considering that Europe had not only been overshadowed by the depression, but faced with Hitler’s gradual rise to power with the understanding that the mentally ill and homosexuals were the first groups he wanted to exterminate.

Provost’s mise-en-scène seems slightly withdrawn. Costumes, upholstery and all other objects are kept in subtle colors, mostly pastels, except for Séraphine’s canvases, which are covered with warm and radiant colors. Most scenes are shot outdoors in the natural light of a lush European summer landscape. Film music is kept to a minimum; instead natural sounds prevail. For example, one hears birds chirping, wind rustling through trees and church bells ringing. This choice in mise-en-scène adds vast dimension to the overall tenor of the film, a complex depiction of a simple woman, who was also an artist.

(Edited by Aparna Bakhle-Ellis)

Managing editor of FABRIK Magazine Los Angeles

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