Film Review – Séraphine

1942, Senlis is at dawn and it’s dawn for Séraphine. The cleaning lady is not famous yet, except for being eccentric, but she paints already. The film begins and follows a 48 year old Séraphine cleaning in her days and painting at night.

Very little is known about her and especially about her painting methods. All we know is that she was using Ripolin, but the production of her colours is still obscure. Thus we follow her picking flowers and mixing pigments but no one ever saw her paint or creating her colours. The film makers obviously had to deal with missing information and decided to use interpretations, taking some ‘obliged’ freedoms with her life.

Those unknown parts of her life give a strong romantic content to the story. Indeed, the mysteries that surround her character and W.Udhe, her mentor and discoverer, creates a very literal atmosphere which is already present in the story itself. In fact we are here dealing with a mocked cleaning lady that becomes an important ‘attraction’ of Paris avant-garde art scene thanks to an art critic who was in Senlis only to find peace away from the capital city.

The two main characters are beautifully well defined and played. Yolande Moreau shows without prejudices the passion of this woman who is worn down by mental illness and who ends up prostrated in paranoia, in a mental hospital.

The description of the conditions of 2nd World War French asylums are very accurate. Whereas asylums were working on their own with form to lead the patients, the work made the staff flee until there were too many patients and too few funds. As a matter of fact illness and instability became common and patients, such as Séraphine, were dying of hunger.

Whereas there are plenty of examples of inmate artists, Séraphine always refused to paint as she entered the asylum. She was considering herself as a true artist and the condition of the mental institute did not fit with her idea of a work of art. On top of that, in her delusion she was not any artist, but the artist chosen by God.

Her fantasy of fame and fortune were however synonym of a frenetic work. Séraphine started to work less as a cleaning lady and spent most of her time painting incredible trees and flowers. She had listened to Udhe who, before fleeing from the Germans at the beginning of the Great War, had told her to work on her art as much as possible and before long Séraphine had reached an artistic level that not even Udhe had hoped her to attain.

She was now painting, on two meters high canvas, plants that seemed strangely alive. Those plants she painted could be a blend of the nature that she had always been surrounded by and where she loved to spend time watching the wildlife and countryside, as well as from the church decorations and processions. However she would explain her talents through God’s will. She said she had witnessed an apparition of the Virgin who asked her to paint. Séraphine’s relationship with God was extreme to the point that she painted kneeling on the floor while singing canticles.

Séraphine’s religious fever can be related to the time when she grew up, the French Church was in crisis and trying to appeal too more believers by a simplification of the discourse and an exaltation of the cult of the Virgin, in order to touch a more simple population. To some extent we can see an analogy between Séraphine, a real person, and Félicité, G.Falubert’s heroine from“ A simple Heart”, published in 1875. Félicité was a cleaning lady who worshipped a stuffed parrot to a point that it was for her the incarnation of the Saint Spirit. Flaubert’s story takes place at about the same time as Séraphine’s childhood.

Séraphine’s paranoia seems to increase when W.Uhde could not pay for all her expenses anymore because of the international economy crisis of the 1930’s. Her refusal to understand that her protector would not afford her extravagances increased her already existent delusions and her feeling of persecution and abandonement. The film also mentions Séraphine’s mysterious lover, a soldier from the Spanish Army. Another ‘mystery’ for us, another frustration for Séraphine.

Here the film does not reflect one important part of Séraphine’s delirium. As her illness grew she claimed to be pregnant and later in the asylum she would complain about the lack of food for her twins. The cult of the virgin is almost certain, identifying a woman’s need to give birth. Some of her paintings have hidden but obvious sexual symbols. Carnal screams of a childless forever virgin woman, pregnant for life of her own art.

The film being about Séraphine, it could not give too many details about the second main character Wilhelm Uhde. I would like to emphasize on this person because it seems to me important to place him in the history of Art Brut and outsider art. Thanks to his work as an art critic, a collector and here mainly as a talent discoverer, he can be seen as a precursor of the debate that will animate the Art’s world of the next generation. Indeed he recognized as artists people that were seen as outsiders. W.Uhde was an eccentric main figure of the Parisian avant-garde and discovered artists such as Picasso and the Douanier Rousseau. He was seeking for a primitivism of feelings developed by simple methods, as well as frenzy and instinctive outburst. His theory was that in art there should be a mix between the earthy roman architecture and the elevated gothic one.

His battle was to have these artists and their art recognized as so. One can’t deny here the link to Dubuffet’s later development notion of Art Brut. There is no evidence of a meeting of the two men. However it seems obvious that they would have heard about each other’s work.

Yet W.Uhde’s theory is too literal and romantic to be embraced and understood by anyone else but himself, while J.Dubuffet established a true definition of the art he defended. This definition, was for him, anything but a form of art standing against the academicals canons.

Thus Dubuffet was more striven by a quest than Uhde. In order to fight the academy’s prejudices, the inventor of Art Brut had to come up with a strong, scientific definition of a different form of art.

As a piece of art the film is strong, the atmosphere intimate and the acting of Y. Morreau so persuasive that you believe in every part of Séraphine’s delusion and become convinced that she has been both blessed and cursed by her obvious talents. There is a sad twist to the story of the film which has since been accused of 35 acts of plagiarism for having copied parts of Alain Vircondelet’s book about Séraphine. The verdict, that in nine specific cases it noted a similarity in the wording used between the screenplay for the film and the book, such that copyright had been infringed, was finally given in November 2010.

Coline Loison (Université du Maine)

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