Directed by Martin Provost
Runtime 125min. - Unrated
In French with English subtitles
4 Stars (out of 4)
I have a really hard time watching films about painters. It's not that I don't like art, it's just that I'm talentless in that arena. I wish I could draw a straight line but I simply cannot. I've tried. I bought brushes and paints and paper and watched Bob Ross more than any grown man should. When the magic of Bob Ross failed I realized I was completely hopeless.
My lack of talent creates another issue as well. It keeps me from sympathizing with the characters. It's harder to understand their struggles. I'm also frequently perplexed by what separates bad art from good art. I understand that a lot of that boils down to taste, but when everyone else is oohing and aahing I'm frequently shaking my head in frustration.
Thankfully, "Seraphine" avoided all of my negative associations with art. For starters, it's a character study. Seraphine's amazing raw talent is simply one part of her complex nature. That's something I understand. Also, her art is part of the "Naive" movement. A name which Seraphine's mentor Wilhelm Uhde despises. He prefers the term "Primitive" as if that's less offensive. Either way, the paintings simplify the details and emphasize colors and contrasts. I find Seraphine's style easy to admire and enjoy.
What really makes the film compelling is Seraphine's journey from housemaid to famous painter. She wasn't the kind of housemaid you see on "Downton Abbey". She wasn't given a clean smock or living quarters in some mansion. Seraphine was at the bottom of the totem pole. She cooked and cleaned for very little money and lived in a tiny apartment. Other housemaids treated her with no respect. Seraphine keeps so quiet towards the beginning of the film that subtitles become a non-issue. She was trained not to speak unless spoken to. It's amazing to me that one adult could treat another with such little respect.
Seraphine gets months behind on her rent. Every franc she earned went towards paint supplies. What she couldn't buy she stole: animal blood for color, anointing oil from a church. No matter how much work she did during the day, at night she painted.
I don't want to go any deeper into the plot. I'll just say that her paintings get noticed, and rightfully so. That doesn't necessarily mean this story has a happy ending. In fact, I found it quite sad. If this were fiction Seraphine would have met a handsome man and lived without care the rest of her days. Those she used to serve would see financial failure and she would hire them on as housemaids. History doesn't allow for such fantasies.
Yolande Moreau won a ton of awards for her turn in the title role. The rest of the cast is amazing, but Moreau's performance is genius. Regardless of the melancholy finale, Seraphine is a beautiful film. It almost makes me want to see some of the other painter biopics I've avoided. Almost.