Yolande Moreau (Séraphine Louis) and Ulrich Tukur (Wilhelm Uhde) in Séraphine
The paintings of Séraphine de Senlis were first championed by Wilhelm Uhde, a collector prominent enough to have been painted by Picasso in a 1910 portrait (Uhde was also an early Picasso collector). Uhde organized two famous exhibits of the primitif painters he favored, Les Peintres du Coeur sacré (1929) and Les Primitifs modernes (1932), including Henri Rousseau and Séraphine de Senlis. Director and screenwriter Martin Provost drew most of the material for his film from the work of Françoise Cloarec, who has also just published a version of her thesis on the painter with Editions Phébus. Provost, a one-time actor, has come out of practically nowhere as a director, his last film Le ventre de Juliette having won a prize at the 2003 Avignon Festival, to come close to a clean sweep of this year's César Awards, the French Oscars, with this beautifully crafted movie.
Françoise Cloarec, Séraphine: La vie rêvée de Séraphine de Senlis
Yolande Moreau (Séraphine Louis) in Séraphine
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What is most surprising about this movie is how the question of Séraphine's artistic inspiration, which she claims is divine, is handled. The only real art to which she was exposed was in church, especially in her work with the nuns at Clermont, and her fervent Catholic faith percolates through the film, without any sign of secular humanist derision in the way it is treated, even when she descends into madness. It is the sort of simple piety that can scandalize the official church, by putting it to shame: in the course of the film, the unschooled Séraphine quotes Teresa of Avila about the sanctity of work (a Benedictine virtue) and sings Gregorian chant from memory as she paints (most memorably, the Pentecost hymn Veni creator, to invoke the Holy Spirit). The film's visual beauty, its attention to historical detail, and above all one of the best performances of Yolande Moreau's career will hopefully put this film into the field for an Academy Award in the foreign film category.
Séraphine opens today at Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema.