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“Seraphine” begins with a series of short, quiet scenes in 1914 Senlis, France.
In the moonlight, as crickets chirp, we see a hand gliding through the water. In the daytime, a stout cleaning woman at a boarding house is told by the owner to open the rooms downstairs. “I have a new tenant,” the owner says.
This cleaning woman is both devout (singing hymns in church slightly off from the masses) and a sensualist. She sits in trees and basks in the breeze, and it’s her hand, we realize, that glides through the water. She’s obsessive—humorously so. She’s doing laundry for five sous here, cleaning rooms for ten sous there, but she doesn’t respond much to human interactions. “Bon jour” and “Merci” bring out nothing in her. In the back of a butcher’s shop we see her steal cow’s blood in a small glass jar and bring it to church. For what bizarre ritual? Then we realize she’s not pouring blood out; she’s pouring melted wax from the candles in. Which is when the other shoe drops. She’s making paint.
By the time most of us sit down to watch “Seraphine,” we know a few basics about her story—she’s a painter who lived in France at the turn of the last century—but this may trump all: She’s important enough that 100 years later we’re watching a film about her. The mere fact of the film, in other words, acts as a kind of redemption for her and a kind of guide for us. We see her scraping by to paint at night but we know, by virtue of the film, that she succeeds. We know, when the boarding-house owner demands to see her work and then dismisses it because the apples don’t look like apples (“They could be plums,” she says), that the woman is a philistine. We know, when dinner-party guests chuckle knowingly about how Seraphine left the convent because she felt God “called her” to paint, that they’re bourgeoisie with lousy bourgeois taste.
The thrill we get, then, is as old as the thrill we get from the Gospels: These people don’t know who’s in their midst. They don’t know how special she is. It’s not a stretch to say we wait for her recognition as surely as we wait for our own.
Thankfully, for Seraphine, the new tenant turns out to be Wilhelm Uhde, a German art critic and collector, one of the first purchasers of Picasso and a champion of Rousseau. Their early encounters are awkward—he doesn’t know why Seraphine’s in his kitchen, she doesn’t know why he likes tea—but she softens when she sees a drawing on his bed (Picasso, it turns out), and his handwriting, which she thinks is beautiful, and which turns her almost coquettish. She finds him in his room crying and later tells him, with childlike intensity, “When I feel sad, I go for a walk in the country and I touch the trees. I talk to the birds, the flowers, the insects, and I feel better.” That’s she devoted to both God and Nature is a stark reminder of just how idiotically divisive the U.S.—where you’re devoted to either one or the other—has become.
One gets the sense that Uhde is bored and anxious in Senlis, and never moreso than at that bourgeois dinner party where the guests compliment each other’s talents while dismissing out-of-hand the kind of art that enthralls him. Then he becomes enthralled. He sees, in a corner, the painting of apples that could be plums, and is shocked to discover it’s by his cleaning woman. The next day he asks Seraphine to see more. He’s overwhelmed with discovery. She’s overwhelmed to be discovered. This is 40 minutes in and we wonder—with her talents revealed—where the story will go from here. She keeps scrubbing his floors, for example, and when he insists that she not, she quotes St. Teresa of Avila: “Be ardent in your work and you will find God in your cooking pots.” One wonders if she needs manual labor in order to do the artistic kind. Will this be the source of the film’s future conflict and tension?
Non. It’s 1914. As summer continues the war heats up until Uhde, a “Boche” to Senlis’ residents, is forced to flee—less from the French, so this French film tells us, than from the invading Germans, who would shoot him as a deserter if they found him there. He leaves behind many of his paintings, including Seraphine’s, and Seraphine, on the verge of being discovered, returns to her cramped existence as cleaning woman by day and artist by night.
Thirteen years go by. It’s 1927 and Uhde, his sister, and his latest discovery, take a house in a different French village, while he goes about the messy business of retrieving his collection, tossed to the winds during the war. He talks primitif moderne art to visiting Parisian journalists and worries over his discovery, and lover, a young man suffering from tuberculosis. Seraphine seems forgotten. It’s not until the sister reads in the paper of an art exhibition in nearby Senlis that we hear her name again. Uhde, who assumed Seraphine dead, visits and walks through the exhibition with trepidation until he turns a corner and sees two of her works hanging there, big and beautiful, and finds her in the same dark flat. The story, tossed to the winds by the war, picks up again.
Uhde’s art-exhibition walk is important—at least for me. As viewers, for reasons already mentioned, we have a sense of superiority over the philistines of Senlis who don’t recognize Seraphine’s talent. But watching Uhde search for Seraphine’s work at the exhibition, rejecting with barely a glance the other works there, I realized I had no clue either. Why is this painting art and that one simply a pretty thing for a relative to hang on a wall? I have no idea. I only have the received wisdom of the ages telling me what is or is not art, and from there I choose what I like, but it’s not the same thing as doing what Uhde does.
The artistic medium in which I feel most comfortable doing what Uhde does, in fact, is this one, writing, probably because it’s the only medium in which form is as important to me as content. I’m OK with film, but I don’t look at film with a director’s eye. Sure, I recognize the artistic weight of some directors—Kubrick, Malick—but generally the story’s more important to me than which shots were chosen. With writing, which words were chosen is generally more important to me than what the story is.
That said, certain shots in “Seraphine” are as beautiful as paintings, and the final shot, silent and two minutes long, gives us a soft landing to what is a hard tale. The film delineates the creative process—or at least a creative process, her creative process—better than almost any film I’ve seen, and drives home the point that artistic talent is fluid, it’s always in a state of becoming, and must be worked like anything else. I like the scene where Uhde stares intently, and with wonder, at one of her paintings, asking this and that, and she, behind him, says she only sees the mistakes. I like the montage where she shows off her work to different friends, standing behind her paintings and often only visible from the nose up, like Kilroy. Some of these paintings are gorgeous. Even a philistine like me recognizes that.
This past February “Seraphine” won 10 Cesars (French Oscars), including best actress and best picture, and will get a limited release in this country in June. A shame it’s not wider. The film, while remaining distinctly French, reminds me of the best pictures we used to make and see in this country: historic, beautiful, accessible.
April 15, 2009
© 2009 Erik Lundegaard