Wednesday, November 4, 2009
A few months ago I heard about a theater in Columbus, GA (about 40 miles from Auburn) that dedicated one screen to showings of foreign and independent films, with a new movie every week. I am ashamed to say that I had not taken the time to attend a screening before now. "Most of the films are out on DVD already, so why take a 90-minute round trip to see them?" I reasoned. "Sure, I go to Atlanta to see the new limited releases, but I can usually knock out 2-4 pictures in one go there. I simply don't have the time to do this." Keep in mind, I worked this conclusion out to justify staying on the couch watching yet more movies. But I finally caved and, barring a frustrating mix-up over time zone differences, I'm glad I did.
And what a film to start my new gas-guzzling indulgence with: I knew absolutely nothing about Séraphine before I drove out to Columbus, only that it had been met with mass acclaim. Imagine my surprise then, to discover I'd waded willingly into a biopic -- of an artist, no less -- though that can't compare to the shock of its undeniable quality. Winner of seven César Awards -- basically the French version of the Oscars, but with some shred of artistic credibility -- Séraphine charts the life of Séraphine Louis, a Naïve painter who flirted with recognition in the post-Word War I era.
When we meet her, however, Séraphine is but a maid slaving over the floors of a high-rent apartment and receiving only a pittance and a great deal of verbal abuse in return. Played to near-perfection by Yolande Moreau, Séraphine is a devout Catholic who believes that her back-breaking housework is her spiritual duty. She slogs about the cobblestone streets of Senlis in worn-out clogs that clack on the pavement like a clod mule. She certainly totes around as much as a pack mule, and she's about as stubborn. Yet there is a childlike wonder on her face, and she often sits in fields and trees peacefully absorbing nature around her.
The landlady of the apartment Séraphine cleans rents out one of the suites to one Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German expat in France at least partially because of his homeland's intolerance of homosexuality. He regards his new maid with scarcely any more tact than the townspeople, and even his more polite conversations with Séraphine sport a whiff of condescension.Soon the landlady and her pretentious friends discover that he's the famous art critic/dealer who discovered Picasso and Rousseau, and they scramble to impress the impresario in their midst with their vacuous opinions on art.
This isn't a lot of story to fill the first 45 minutes, but Marc Abdelnour and Martin Provost's script excels in presenting us with small, seemingly arbitrary moments that slowly coalesce to advance the narrative (perhaps they understood that they selected a semi-obscure subject for a biography so they could wring some mystery out of her). Provost inserts shots of Séraphine nicking various odd substances from all the places around town where she works -- some blood from the butcher's, the melted wax from the candles in the transept -- and gently he leads up to the revelation that she uses them to improvise her own paints, which she uses for her art. Naturally, one of her paintings makes it into Uhde's hands, and he's overwhelmed. Before he can launch Séraphine, however, WWI breaks out and Ehde returns to Germany, aware that if the Germans take France and find him he'll be shot as a deserter.
The film jumps then from 1914 to 1927. Uhde returns to France to reclaim the impressive collection he left when the Germans invaded. Convinced that his impoverished, aged discovery died in the interim, Uhde has a shock when he attends an exhibition of local art and finds that Séraphine is not only alive but even better than before. He seeks her out and becomes her patron, but just as the 63-year-old finally brushes with wealth -- and the excess that befalls the nouveau riche -- the Depression hits. It's always something.
I'd never heard of "Séraphine de Senlis," so I was treated to seeing her artwork for the first time. It is genuinely beautiful, vibrant and replicating; no one knows for sure what she materials she used to paint, and they have an intensity you don't often see in paintings, particularly the reds. Yet her paintings also have a darker quality: her leaves have fuzzy fringes that look like the creepiest of crawlies, and her fruits suspiciously like eyes. They have a schizophrenic quality, underscored by Séraphine's notions of a guardian angel that guides her actions. What seems a story of divine inspiration, however, gradually mounts into a depiction of madness, aggravated by the cruel tease of fate that knocks the old housekeeper back to the bottom of Fortune's wheel just as she started to rotate to the top.
Provost films Séraphine in long takes, watching Séraphine's blank face silently as her mental illness consumes her. Yet the director and his editor, Ludo Troch, find a way to linger on these takes while still keeping a moderate pace that maintains an even keel regardless of what happens: when Séraphine at last fully loses her grip on reality and is committed, the event fits as naturally into the story as those early scenes of quiet diligence.
Séraphine is a strange and wonderful beast: a biopic that manages to be unpretentious, interesting and subtle. As with Jane Campion's recent Keats biopic, Bright Star, it leaves large elliptical gaps in the narrative that make the story more interesting, not less. Besides, it's nice to see a story that doesn't work out like all the others: when Uhde visits Séraphine at the asylum, he does not attempt to wring more paintings from her madness, to push his artist even further over the edge for his own financial or spiritual gain; instead, he takes the money he got from selling her work to buy her a room that allows her to go outside and be with the trees and flowers she loves so much.