Review Date: 6-20-09
Release Date: 6-5-09 USA, limited
Runtime: 125 min.
Period: France, 1914 – 1935
Costume Designer: Madeline Fontaine
Séraphine is a film that makes you think – it makes you think about all of the potential brilliance in people that has gone undiscovered. It makes you think about what it is to be an outsider, a person unwanted or unnoticed in society, and it makes you think about religion and those who regard it zealously, without question. This is a good movie on all levels: directing, acting, cinematography, production design and costumes. It swept the César Awards in France for 2008 (the film was released in October 2008 in that country), and it is definitely a must-see.
The film is based on the true-life story of Séraphine Louis, a self-taught painter in France, who lived from 1864 – 1942 in a small village called Senlis, approximately thirty miles north of Paris. The film tells the story of her life, accurately (as much as it can be told) and succinctly, highlighting her work and her life’s major turning points. The film moves along smoothly, and with great economy. In 125 minutes, one cannot tell an eighty-five-year-long story in detail. However, this film does a very good job of describing the important parts in a way that pulls the audience toward greater understanding and compassion for this woman, her art and her situation.
The film opens in Senlis, France, in 1914. Séraphine (Yolande Moreau) wades through a creek, trailing her hand in the water. Church bells ring. She scurries to the cathedral, crosses herself, sits and sings along with the other worshippers. She returns to one of her menial-labor jobs, housekeeping for the megabitch of Senlis, Madame Duphot (Geneviève Mnich). Madame Duphot orders her to get her guesthouse ready for a new tenant, who turns out to be Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a very serious, very German art collector. Séraphine walks through a field to a big tree and climbs it, taking in the view, heavy boots swinging in the breeze.
Wilhelm arrives with a lady in tow, and they soon begin making the guesthouse their own, taking down the existing art from the walls. Wilhelm settles in as the lady takes the car to Paris. He walks through the fields to a bridge that overlooks the creek in which Séraphine waded earlier.
The next morning, Wilhelm meets Séraphine, and barely acknowledges her. He lounges outdoors in his pajamas, robe and straw hat. Séraphine is barefoot as she works. She asks him for money – a tip, perhaps, for her services – and then heads out, pushing a wheelbarrow of laundry up a hill. Séraphine washes the laundry in a creek with several other women – this is yet another of her menial jobs, allowing her to scrape by. She delivers the clean linens to one of Senlis society’s other megabitches, who looks upon Séraphine with disgust, and tries to short her what little money she’s owed.
Séraphine then goes to her other menial job, working in a butcher shop. As she rinses cows’ liver, she surreptitiously dips a glass bottle into the murky crimson water, collecting a specimen of it. She corks the bottle and goes on her way. She hurries to the church, blows out a few votive candles on an altar and harvests the melted beeswax, whispering a prayer fervently.
Séraphine is out of credit at the local dry-goods store, and she is two months behind in her rent. She doesn’t want to be bothered by anyone, and she heads out to a field. This time, she collects mud and ochre clay, flowers and weeds. She heads home and begins to mix her own paints from the things that she’s collected. She paints by candlelight, singing in Latin to a waxy, candle-lit shrine.
Cleaning Wilhelm’s house the next day, Séraphine finds a sketch of lovers in an embrace by a then-unknown Picasso. Its beauty gives her pause. She senses that Wilhelm is sad, and tells him that walking in nature, talking to trees and birds always seems to make her feel better. Wilhelm is skeptical at best, dismissive at worst.
Séraphine makes a humble dinner for two nuns dressed in full habits. Séraphine has baked some bread in one of her employer’s ovens while they were out at church, and the nuns giggle at her naughtiness. The head nun asks how she is doing mentally. Séraphine gives a wan smile. We sense the back-story, that Séraphine has had psychological trouble, but there is no explanation.
Séraphine prepares a bath for Wilhelm. He is still sad, so she offers him some of her special “energy wine”. Wilhelm almost chokes on it; it is so strong. She fills the tub with the last bucket of hot water, and he enters the bath. We hear sexy-times noises coming from another room, and we see Séraphine waiting outside in the hall. Hurriedly, Anatole Duphot (the son of Madame Duphot) exits the room, adjusting his coat, followed by a embarrassed young housemaid in uniform with downcast eyes.
Madame Duphot enters the house, dressed in black like the plague she is, and immediately scolds Séraphine for having stripped the bed. We know why Séraphine has stripped the bed, natch, but Madame Duphot does not. She instructs Séraphine not to strip beds without being told to do so, and tells her not to answer back. Madame Duphot has heard tell that Séraphine spends her free time painting, and could she (Séraphine) bring in a painting for her to see?
Séraphine goes down to the creek to do the washing. Wilhelm is walking through the property, and he comes to the bridge from before. He glances over and sees Séraphine, now naked, lolling around in the creek, and swiftly makes himself invisible. She comes back to the guesthouse to find a note from Wilhelm saying that he’s gone to Paris, and for her to carry on as usual.
Séraphine shows one of her paintings to Madame Duphot, who is critical, unappreciative and dismissive of her talent. She is a bitter, hateful woman… and yet, she keeps the painting. Séraphine returns to the guesthouse to find a snoring Wilhelm, passed out on the bed. She takes off his shoes, removes the chamber pot from his room, hangs up her apron and leaves.
The next day, Madame Duphot comes to Wilhelm’s door, and announces that she’s discovered who he really is – a big-time art collector, dealer, gallery owner and art critic. She wants to have a dinner with him and some of her “artist friends” from Senlis. He reluctantly agrees.
The dinner guests are pompous, narrow-minded, boorish, small-town blow-hard dolts, who, not realizing the formidable stature of Wilhelm in the art community, proceed to trash the “Naïf” art movement. In their ignorance, the dinner guests fail to realize that Wilhelm is the preeminent collector of “Modern Primitive” (the term he prefers) artists’ work. Further, one of the guests makes mention of the burgeoning threat of war with the Germans. Wilhelm has had enough.
He gets up to leave, when he sees Séraphine’s beautiful painting in the corner. Transfixed, he asks Madame Duphot who painted it. Her haughtiness practically prevents her from choking out the word: Séraphine. She continues to mock Séraphine and her perceived lack of talent, and is appalled and scandalized when Wilhelm offers to buy the painting from her on the spot. He takes the painting back with him to the guesthouse.
Wilhelm studies Séraphine’s painting by candlelight, reverent and amazed. The next morning, Séraphine shows up at the guesthouse, and discovers her painting in the kitchen. Wilhelm asks to see more of her paintings immediately. She takes him to her apartment, and makes him wait outside while she fetches the other paintings. Cut to: Séraphine paying off her debt at the dry goods store. Evidently, Wilhelm has purchased her paintings.
Wilhelm, his lady friend, and another couple are enjoying a sunny afternoon. Wilhelm plays piano, and the rest of them look through his art purchases, which include works by Henri Rousseau. By now, it is evident that Séraphine’s work is being appreciated by the right people, at last.
When she returns to work at the guesthouse the next day, she immerses herself in house cleaning. She can’t seem to stop. She tries to explain it to Wilhelm in religious terms, the Virgin Mary and so on, and we get the sense that she might be a little bit more than religiously fervent; she might be a little bit cuckoo.
Wilhelm shows up at her apartment the next morning – he wants to see what she’s painted. She has fallen asleep in her clothes, a dirty paint-swabbed apron around her waist. She turns him away, telling him she’ll bring the painting in the next day. Her apartment is dreadfully dirty and disheveled, no place to entertain company, not to mention a man of his ilk.
The next day, she shows Wilhelm her painting. It is lovely. He asks about her art education: she has none. She explains that a guardian angel came down from heaven and guided her hand to paint. He is shell-shocked. Séraphine continues cleaning. Wilhelm leads her by the elbow to a chair placed in the garden. He is very serious with her, explaining that she’ll have to work very hard, but that she will have a career in painting. Séraphine does not know what to do with this. He tells her that he will take care of her (so that she can paint). Madame Duphot observes this exchange and is mightily displeased.
Wilhelm starts to pack up his belongings. The heat on the Germans (particularly in France) has been ratcheted up, and he is worried. He tells Séraphine to keep working. She asks what will happen if he doesn’t come back, and he answers her by putting a big wad of money in her hand. She becomes angry at this – she doesn’t want his money. She asserts that he (Wilhelm) thinks he’s better than her, and she goes off on a long litany of class-related issues that have been confounding her life. The conversation ends with Wilhelm telling Séraphine that he will never marry, that the lady friend he travels with, Anne Marie (Anne Bennent), is his sister. We start to suspect that this is his nice way of telling Séraphine that he’s gay. Suddenly, an egg hits the window.
Anne Marie and Wilhelm hightail it out of Senlis, leaving behind all of their art purchases except for one Rousseau jungle piece. They drive off as bombs light up the night sky behind them. War has begun, and France is no safe place for gay, art-collecting Germans.
The next morning, Séraphine determinedly walks the streets of Senlis, as gunfire and bomb blasts pepper the morning air. She does not seem to be afraid. At least, that is, until she witnesses the point-blank execution of a family in the middle of the street. Séraphine makes her way to the Duphot’s estate, and Madame Duphot tells her to get lost. Séraphine pretends to exit, but instead goes into the guesthouse, where she finds papers, art and shattered glass everywhere. She rescues a few of her paintings and Wilhelm’s notebook, and leaves.
At night she paints as the bombs are dropped. She nervously sings religious songs and makes her art in the candlelight. On one snowy night, she takes a lantern and sneaks off to the Duphot’s guesthouse with a big bag in her hand. Once there, she collects things like paint, food, cheese, soap, and fabric, specifically linen. Lots and lots of linen. She departs with a full bag.
She stretches the linen and starts painting, eating a morbidly stale piece of bread. She creates a staggeringly beautiful and exultant floral painting in a time of the most dismal destruction. One can’t help but wonder if her paintings were really divinely inspired at this point. Cuckoo? Or just misunderstood? Schizophrenic? Or talking with the divine? What, if anything, is the difference? Must we particularly believe in the validity of a religion to declare such a person sane? And if we don’t believe in the religion, is the person then INsane? Is it possible to actually talk with God and angels? And if so, does that presuppose that they actually exist? This is a sidebar, and I could go on forever, but at this point in the movie, it really makes you wonder.
It is now Spring, 1927 in Chantilly, another small town near Senlis. Wilhelm picks up a journalist in his car and drives him to a home that he has rented with his sister. The journalist interviews him, and this serves as a clever device for the audience to understand who Wilhelm is – we get his resume, if you will – and we begin to understand that his love of art is spiritual, not financial.
We meet Helmut Kolle (Nico Rogner), Wilhelm’s young lover, who is horribly ill with tuberculosis. Helmut and Wilhelm sleep in the same bed at night, but disguise the situation from the outside world. There are two beds in the room, and when Wilhelm leaves the room, Helmut gets in the other, unused bed, to keep up appearances.
As his health improves somewhat, Helmut paints. He is in the middle of painting a beautiful portrait of Anne Marie when he declares that he is not in the business for fame, which aggravates Wilhelm to some degree, as Wilhelm is trying to place and sell his work.
Driving his car in the countryside, Wilhelm unknowingly passes Séraphine on the road. She has come upon hard times, and looks quite haggard and threadbare. She is again relegated to doing a number of menial, thankless jobs, including laundry. She buys a small item at the dry goods store, and with compassion to her plight, the owner gives her his leftover sandwich, which she hungrily devours. It is clear that Séraphine has hit the hardest of hard times.
At her apartment, she paints on the floor. The place is slovenly and tiny. A young woman, Minouche (Adélaïde Leroux), arrives, bringing soup for Séraphine. So grave is Séraphine’s situation that she is inclined to save the soup for tomorrow, as she’s “already eaten my meal for today”. She prays to the Virgin Mary for help and relief.
Wilhelm is playing piano and his sister is reading the paper. Abruptly she stops – there is to be an exhibition of local artists from the region of Senlis – do you think Séraphine is still alive and working? Wilhelm goes to the exhibit, and to his great amazement, finds two large panels of Séraphine’s and buys them immediately. He sets off to find her.
Séraphine answers the door and is mildly happy to see Wilhelm, but still suspicious because she thinks he is mocking her. Wilhelm assures her that he would never mock her; that he loves her work, and it is better than ever before. She invites him in to her squalid apartment. As he looks around, she retrieves the notebook that she saved from the rubble of the guesthouse. It’s Wilhelm’s art ledger. He is touched and amazed that she kept it for him.
Séraphine walks in the countryside. The newspaper has done a very complimentary write-up on her and her work, but the praise falls flat on Wilhelm, who still accuses the hoi polloi of not understanding the depth of her talent. He compares her to Van Gogh, not realizing how eerily prescient a comparison that would eventually be.
Séraphine arrives at Wilhelm’s rented house in Chantilly, and the maid almost turns her away. Anne Marie greets her from the garden, and it seems as though Séraphine is not necessarily shaken by the indignity of the maid’s perception of her.
Walking with a slight limp, Séraphine tours the property with Wilhelm and Helmut. She stops for a moment to hug a tree. Wilhelm, uncomfortable with this unusual behavior, moves everyone along for lunch. The maids, seeing this, begin to gossip about her. Wilhelm tells Séraphine that he will sponsor her, pay her a lump sum every month and take care of her rent so that she is freed up to paint all day. From this point forward, she is banned from cleaning.
Riding in the car on the way back to Senlis, Séraphine intimates to Anne Marie and Helmut that she wants to have a big car when she gets famous. That she wants fame is curious, but not if you equate (as perhaps she did) fame with respect.
She quickly rents two large rooms in her apartment building, and with the help of Minouche, buys a ton of home furnishing items from the dry goods store. She hangs the Virgin Mary icon in her new home, and has candles everywhere. A delivery of brand-new art supplies arrives. Gone are the days of collecting mud and wax. This is a new life for Séraphine. Wilhelm promises her a show in Paris.
Singing loudly in Latin to the virgin as she paints, Séraphine produces piece after beautiful piece, all of them large (2 meters high). In a comical montage, she brings in townsfolk from Senlis to view her pieces, to gauge their reactions. One of the townspeople remarks that the flowers and leaves in her paintings seem to move, that they look like insects. Séraphine concurs, saying that sometimes her paintings scare her. The woman asks if she is sure that it’s the guardian angel guiding her hand? (leaving the invisible ellipses to beg the question: or the devil?) Ahh, life in a small town.
Minouche and Séraphine go with a realtor to look at a beautiful new home. It is Séraphine’s dream to own it, or is it part of her ever-increasing psychosis? We see Séraphine and Minouche in a fabulous dressmaker’s shop. Séraphine is being fitted for a wedding gown, taffeta and silk. She makes a note to herself, and to Minouche – can you imagine, Séraphine Louis, daughter of a manual laborer, wearing taffeta and silk? Implication: she’s come a long way. She asks the dressmakers to make Minouche a lovely bridesmaid’s gown. At this point, one begins to wonder if Séraphine is still living in a grounded reality, or what, exactly, is the purpose of the wedding gown?
Wilhelm comes to Senlis to see Séraphine, quite upset, as he has received huge bills from the wedding dressmaker, and the real estate agent wanting to secure a deposit for the big new house. He tells Séraphine that she is spending foolishly, recklessly, and with the economic situation across the globe (the Great Depression), there is no way he can concede to her spending. Furthermore, collectors in the art world have had to cut back on their spending, and he has to postpone her Paris show yet again. There are no more buyers.
Séraphine retreats to painting again, singing and praying, indicating to God that she’s “ready”. We sense a distinct shift in her psychological health. Meanwhile, Helmut lays dying in Chantilly. Wilhelm says his goodbyes to Helmut.
Minouche knocks on the door of Séraphine’s apartment. She emerges, wearing the beautiful wedding gown, long flowing veil, barefoot, and carrying two large cloth bags. She doesn’t seem to notice anyone else as she descends the stairs. She walks through the town, depositing expensive items (silver candelabra, silverware) on doorsteps, knocking on the door, moving along, muttering things like “My paintings are blessed”. Séraphine is getting rid of all of her earthly possessions, directed by angels. One of the women of the town calls the police, and they corner Séraphine on a staircase. She appears confused, disoriented, and bewildered. They take her in without incident, escorting her into a paddy wagon.
Resolutely, she is checked in to the asylum. Nuns dress her in a loose black linen dress, and … to be honest with you … at this point, the film jammed in the theater’s projector and it caught on fire! We in the audience thought it might have been some kind of omen. The projectionist soon repaired the film, and got it rolling again…
Séraphine shuffles into a large common room full of similarly afflicted female patients. She is barefoot. At night, she sleeps in a common dormitory, open air with all patients together. One woman gets up and walks to Séraphine’s bed, pulling her hair. Séraphine freaks out and starts a ruckus. She gets in trouble, and it’s not really even her fault. They escort her away and chain her to a bed. She is shattered, destroyed.
Wilhelm shows up to the asylum and demands to see her. The guard lets him in to the room, where Séraphine is in a straitjacket, chained to the bed, flat on her back, crying. Wilhelm reaches out to touch her. She is inconsolable. Wilhelm leaves, and as he walks down the hallway, we see his tears.
Clermont Asylum, 1935. Wilhelm looks in on her again. He is advised not to see her, as it would be disturbing to her state of mind. He observes her, barefoot, in the common room. The doctor tells him that she says her painting has “gone into the night”. He indicates that if Wilhelm really wants to take care of her, he could provide her with better lodging within the asylum. Wilhelm agrees.
Séraphine checks into her new room, which has a patio leading out to a grassy field with a large tree. She shuffles out to the patio, grabs a chair, and lumbers out to the tree in one, long, fabulous shot. She puts the chair next to the tree, and sits down. The end.
This film won the César for best costume design, and I must agree that the costumes are pretty wonderful. The use of color and fabric are particularly clever here, as both help to define state of mind and social status.
When designing a character, it is essential to think about the physicality of the actor. In this film, Yolande Moreau plays Séraphine. This actress is one of France’s very finest, and as such you want to make her look good. But “good” is relative, isn’t it? Séraphine, the character in this movie, looked sweaty and stinky throughout much of the film, and that, friends, is good. Moreau is a big girl, and her costumes worked in such a way to emphasize her bulk. Don’t get me wrong; she didn’t look fat or unattractive or anything, it was just that her costumes were roomy, and this caused her silhouette to have more oomph to it. The period shaping of her costumes was perfect; I never once felt like I was taken out of the period. Yolande Moreau’s shape and size was used gracefully to describe this woman, and that is exactly what we all aim for.
With regard to the character of Séraphine, she starts the movie as Madame Duphot’s cleaning lady. As such, she makes enough money to take care of her clothing – no holes, nothing too threadbare. Her costumes are simple and rustic – nothing fancy about them, and they are made from fabric that looks to have a slightly coarse weave. She wears a black straw hat that is losing some of the color around the edges, and when she goes out, she wears a blue knit shawl with self-fringe – looks like something she could have made herself.
Despite her quirky charm, Séraphine is part of the bottom-class of Senlis society, and this fact is magnified by the people of the upper classes we see in the film, and the manner in which they are dressed. We don’t really understand how much of an outcast Séraphine truly is until we see the world around her; it is all relative. Her costumes in this stage (I’ll call it “Stage 1”) are dark – navy, black, deep blue, and there is much repeating of garments. That means, we see the same items of clothing used over and over in different combinations. This would have been true to period, as people back then didn’t have closets full of garments from which to choose.
In “Stage 2”, we see Séraphine after the war (WWI), and she is destitute. Her clothing (costumes) is in tatters, and it looks as if she hasn’t bathed in weeks. Everything she wears has a grimy, filthy quality, and to emphasize the grime, some of her garments are in slightly lighter colors, to show the dirt better. This is my guess (regarding the choice of colors), but we do see her in pieces that are in the grey/taupe/light blue family, as opposed to the darker colors from Stage 1. The light color works so well to emphasize the filth, it just looks like… bleaugh.
In “Stage 3”, when Wilhelm starts to take care of her (when she has more money), her costumes become very smart. She wears the same darker colors as before (navy, black, blue, grey), but the fabrics are much more refined (as opposed to the coarse, looser weave fabrics of “Stage 1”), and everything appears to fit her properly. Further, her hat (again, black straw) is in great shape, and everything about her seems a little bit tighter and more together.
And then there is the wedding dress. When we talk about “the character’s arc” in filmmaking, this is the perfect example. Everything in the film builds up to this one scene – it is the point at which everything truly changes for Séraphine. She dresses in the finest, most expensive garment she has ever owned (which is, by the way, pure, pristine white – representing her innocence – we have never seen her in anything so pure, clean or light in color before) and she wanders through town, making good on the angels’ plan. It is no coincidence that she looks a bit like an angel herself in this costume, the long veil serving as her wings. It is the perfect costume to describe the apex of this character’s arc. While I am sure that this costume was scripted, the costume team did such a good job using fine fabrics, period silhouette and attention to detail (the sad flowers in the veil), it’s kind of mind-blowing.
Which leads us to “Stage 4”, in the Asylum. Interesting here is that Séraphine is either dressed in black (what looks like washed linen) in the daytime, along with the rest of the patients, and then at nighttime, in a white nightgown. Something seems to say (considering the color choices) there is only sane or insane, black or white, and nothing else in-between in this world. Reflecting back on Séraphine’s other costume colors in the other stages, this becomes quite interesting. Séraphine had the freedom to live “outside the box” in the real world, wearing all manner of blues and greys, and then, in the moment that sunk her, she appeared all in white for the first time. She was then forced into the black-and-white world, shoved back into “the box”, forbidden her freedom.
The use of the color blue bears mention here – there are many scenes in which several of the characters wear blue and the scenic details are in blue, all at the same time, creating a beautiful tableau. As I recall, this usually involved Wilhelm, Séraphine, Anne Marie and Helmut. While it looked quite gorgeous, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a way to tie them all together. They were all outsiders for one reason or another: gay, German, eccentric, poor, whatever. Society looked askance at all of them. Making the leap, I am wondering if the color blue linked them all in this shared “outsiderness”? Take a look at the movie, and tell me if I am imagining this. I can’t recall any other characters wearing blue.
Wilhelm is dressed impeccably, as might be expected for a man of his taste and wealth. He wears mostly blue three-piece suits, some with a nice stripe to them, and some verging on grey-blue. He wears shirts with removable collars, nice wide silk ties, vests and a beautiful pale straw hat. His costumes are superb, and they set him apart from Séraphine in their exquisite fabrics and finishes. This is part of what I was talking about vis-à-vis Séraphine’s world (poor) versus the Senlis society’s world (fine fabrics). Wilhelm was not a part of Senlis society, but he did represent the money that Séraphine lacked. Their contrast was very stark and powerful.
In the scenes where Wilhelm visits Séraphine at the Asylum, he wears a black suit with a white shirt and a black and white striped tie. This costume (and we’ve never seen Wilhelm wear anything as stark as black before) serves to underline the notion that in that world, the institution of society, “the box”, there is only black and white.
Anne Marie, Wilhelm’s sister, is fabulously attired. Her beautiful linen day dresses are perfectly fit to her willowy figure. There is one particular dress (a light blue day dress with buttons in the back) that knocked me out. There are close-up shots of her shoes, too, and they are perfect – beautiful, nice-looking shoes for a woman of artistic taste and means. Special kudos to the hair department for managing her frizzy, wavy hair into a style that was completely appropriate for the period, and was always very natural. Her hair looked so much like the hairstyles you see in pictures from the period. It was really great, and the hair department deserves applause for that.
Madame Duphot was perfectly costumed, as well. Since she wore black for the majority of her screen-time, we are to assume she’s a widow. And of course, the lack of a Monsieur Duphot informed us of that, as well. Her severe taffeta dresses, big hats and prissy costume details spoke volumes about her character. In the dinner scene with the blow-hard Senlis art crowd, Madame Duphot wears a deep purple and black striped dress that was a mind-blower from a technical standpoint, but also have served as a “let me impress you” dress, slightly coquettish in its use of color… was she trying to flirt with Wilhelm? This actress gave such a fine performance – really it is worth mentioning, because for what could have been such a cookie-cutter “bitch” role, she imbued it with layers. We see her insecurity, her vanity, her lack of control; it’s beautiful.
Helmut Kolle only shows up in act two, but his costumes are fabulous. Here is a gay German man with a serious sense of style. That comes firmly tongue in cheek, people, don’t freak out. Helmut’s costumes are very stylish, dapper and fashion-forward. This is not a man who is afraid to express himself in this manner. We don’t see Helmut in the film until about 1927, and he expires in 1931, so his appearance is short-lived, though very fashionable.
The supporting cast – Minouche, the Senlis art blow-hards, the nuns, asylum doctors, and townspeople – are all exquisitely realized. Watching this film, you get the sense that these people are not just characters, but that they really existed. These costumes are very well done, and they help to elevate the film to an engaging, absorbing level, where you almost forget that you’re watching a movie.
One can’t help but make the comparison of Séraphine to American folk art masters like Howard Finster (1916 – 2001), Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910 – 2007), and R. A. Miller (1912 – 2006). Like Séraphine, Finster and Miller created artwork that was guided by a divine influence. Both men were ministers and had a personal spiritual connection to God. Making their art was spreading God’s work. Like Séraphine said in the film, “My paintings are blessed”; I think Finster and Miller would have told you the same. Jimmy Lee Sudduth was famous for making his own paint out of ordinary materials: Flour, coffee, crepe paper, bricks, mud, egg yolks, and he often painted with his hands, as does Séraphine in the film.
All of these artists were quite poor, living in the rural isolated south and all were initially rejected for their untrained work. All of these artists were at one time “outsiders” who painted for the joy of it, who felt compelled to create, no matter what public opinion was at the time. Thankfully, these artists all had the last laugh when art critics, collectors and dealers began to take notice. The idea that “naïve” or “primitive” art could be dismissed, out of hand, based on the lack of training of the artist is ridiculous. Great art is something that speaks to the viewer, regardless of an artist’s training.
This film also brings to mind the plight of a contemporary artist, Susan Boyle. I know it seems like apples and oranges to compare Séraphine to Britain’s Got Talent’s 2009 runner-up, but consider this: both women were harshly ignored by society before their talents were uncovered. Both women were middle-aged at the time they broke through. Both women endured taunts and criticism from society based on their appearance/lifestyle/mode of dress/demeanor. Both women suffered psychological damage pursuant to their artistic breakthroughs. And most importantly, both women were/are sincerely talented. Let’s hope that Susan Boyle’s story ends on a happier note than did Séraphine’s.
I hope that you can all get a chance to see this film – it is deserving of all of its Césars, and it is a well-told story. Yolande Moreau is breathtaking in her performance; we lose ourselves in her passion and in her humble, divinely-inspired work. The costumes are magnificent – clever, and spot-on in their depiction of people from this world. If it’s not in a theater near you, put it in your Netflix queue or rent it. I will say this – the film is kind of dark. It is lit by natural light, or candlelight, so see it in a theater if you can, so that you can make out all the details. And I hope that at your screening, the film doesn’t catch fire.