We have a popular conception stereotype of the “artistic temperament:” half mad, wild and unpredictable, genius and fragile and flamboyant. “Seraphine,” which won more awards in France than “Avatar” won in America, ought to challenge all of those assumptions, in the most gentle and provocative way.
The story of early 20th century French painter Seraphine de Senlis, the title character is played by Yolande Moreau. She is in her late fifties, and has the look of a woman who has worked very hard for a very long time and very little money. She serves the upper class in a small town outside Chantilly; she takes small jobs as a cook, a maid, a washerwoman. She has special tricks for getting stains out of sheets. She does not look or act like an “artist.” She has no purple scarves or funny hats; there are no tempestuous love affairs or suicide attempts. But, as she goes about her day, cleaning and cooking and scrubbing and carting, she steals small things no one will notice – some blood from the butcher, a bit of turpentine from the rosary candles at church. She takes these things home and mixes paint with them, then paints startling, vivid still lives while she sings songs to the Virgin well into the night.
Her patron, art dealer and critic Wilhelm Uhde, is just her opposite. She is sturdy and methodical; he is fey and dainty, complaining that no one in France knows how to make a proper cup of tea (he is German, but acts British.) He is gay and rich and bored with high class society; he goes to a tea of “art appreciators” and spots one of Seraphine’s paintings tucked away in a corner. The patroness had recently asked to see her maid’s artwork, and then derided her for it, and told her to stick with scrubbing the floors. He sees what they miss: a shocking vitality in her work, that elusive quality that sets the great apart from the rest. When he learns she’s his housekeeper, he can hardly stand it. He tries to set her up as a proper artist, with an income and all, but first, she can’t believe he’s actually serious, and then World War I interferes, and he’s forced to return to Germany.
What sets “Seraphine” apart from so many other artist biopics is the performance of Moreau. She manages to embody a woman who is a cleaning lady, half-insane, and an artist of singular vision and talent. She does it without pretense or artifice. Moreau presents us with a woman, not a caricature; she avoids the pitfalls so many actors fall into when portraying historical figures, especially eccentric ones. She does not try to make Seraphine larger than life, and does not strain to let us know what she is thinking every minute of every day. Here, simply, is a woman going through her day – and then, suddenly, she looks to the heavens, and there’s something in her eyes. Then she is on earth again, and when she is washing linens in the river, she seems born to wash linens in the river. And when she is painting her startling, vivid paintings, she seems born to paint. There is no separation of the mundane from the sacred in the life and personality of Seraphine de Senlis; the two are utterly, inextricably entwined.
Uhde returns after the war, and is able to execute his grand plans for Seraphine; that is, at least until the Depression hits and people lose interest in buying art. The appearance of a kind and rich benefactor who sees the genius buried inside may be the secret dream of all artists everywhere, but it’s hard to say that it’s good for Seraphine. All along she has insisted that her paintings are the result of divine inspiration; she has a guardian angel who talks to her frequently. Given the time and resources to paint endlessly, she grows odder and odder, until she is no longer fit for this world. When she dons a wedding dress and begins donating her silver to the poor, her neighbors call the cops, and she is hauled of to an insane asylum. It’s a sad fact that acts of abundant generosity are often viewed as acts of lunacy; it just doesn’t make sense to give anything away when there’s a recession on. So Seraphine spends her final days in an insane asylum, where she can no longer paint. “The angels have left me,” she mourns. And we mourn with her.