While I had heard of painter Séraphine de Senlis prior to watching the new movie named for her, Séraphine (from Music Box Films, opening today in LA and NYC), I was completely unfamiliar with the details of her life and art. Martin Provost's film provides considerable insight, into not only Séraphine but also her gay patron, German art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde. It resulted in the film's winning seven Césars (the French Oscar) last year, including Best Film and Best Actress.
Uhde met the reserved, unassuming Séraphine while she worked as his housekeeper in the small French town of Senlis between 1912 and 1914. If Provost's cinematic take on events is accurate, Uhde discovered her immense talent by chance during a dinner party. He quickly became Séraphine's champion. Though World War I separated them for 13 years, Uhde remained faithful to her from 1927 until long after Séraphine's sad death in 1942, while she was incarcerated in an insane asylum.
As portrayed by the excellent Yolande Moreau (Amélie), Séraphine was a woman on the verge of not only brilliance but insanity for much of her adult life. She was a devout Catholic, and claimed that her artistic inspiration came directly from her guardian angel. While Séraphine delights in Uhde's and others' praise of her work, she consistently downplays her talent and gives credit to God. Her colorful depictions of plants and insects (and insect-like plants) became more skilled under Uhde's encouragement, but she also isolated herself more and exhibited increasing emotional — and often public — outbursts.
Uhde (a fine performance by Ulrich Tukur, veteran of several Costa-Gavras films and the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others) was revered throughout Europe as the first buyer of Picasso's works, as well as the dealer of works by acclaimed avant-garde painter Le Douanier Rousseau. He was also a homosexual man. Séraphine is quite discreet in depicting this facet of Uhde's person. The most he reveals to Séraphine about his homosexuality is when he tells her "I'll never marry a woman; why do you think I moved out here (from Germany)?"
Uhde is shown in bed at one point with his younger pupil, the sickly Helmut Kolle (Nico Rogner). While more restrained in its approach to gay relations than most contemporary films, these brief lines and scenes tell us all we need to know about cultural attitudes toward homosexuality in the early 20th century.
Séraphine is exquisitely photographed by Laurent Brunet, and the film's final shot is a beaut that should haunt viewers for some time. As the works of Séraphine the artist have stood the test of time and grown in value, I expect this account of her little-known life to do the same.
UPDATE: Séraphine is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.