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Out of Frame: 'Séraphine'

Yolande Moreau (Séraphine Louis) and Ulrich Tukur (Wilhelm Uhde) in Séraphine
Séraphine Louis (1864–1942, dite Séraphine de Senlis), the subject of Martin Provost’s recent film Séraphine, is not exactly an unknown painter. Although her work is found in only a few museums now, in her native Senlis and a few other small cities in France, the Museum of Modern Art in New York ended up with a couple of her paintings, Les Pommes and Tree of Paradise. (Also, the Musee Maillol just had an exhibit of her work, which closed on May 18, and images of some of her paintings can be found on Flickr.) She was a naive painter, an ultimately unsatisfactory but unavoidable term indicating that although she was never trained in painting, she painted as a way to act out a sort of compulsion, what now is sometimes called visionary art.

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.

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Françoise Cloarec, Séraphine: La vie rêvée de Séraphine de Senlis
Wilhelm Uhde, played with patrician reserve by Ulrich Tukur, comes from Paris to Senlis under somewhat murky circumstances in 1914. Much to his surprise, the art critic finds his next discovery scrubbing the floors of his rented rooms. We see much of Séraphine’s life, in a moving, witty performance by Yolande Moreau, before we know anything about her painting, which reveals the art as just another part of her unusual life. She scrimps together a living serving as a maid, scrubbing linen in the river, occasionally cooking for the Sœurs de la Providence in Clermont, where she spent part of her early life after being orphaned. All the while she is collecting odd things -- cow’s blood, used candle wax, ochre-colored mud, wildflowers -- that we later learn serve as special pigments, creating the inimitable colors of her paintings. Unfortunately, Uhde has to flee France suddenly as the battles of World War I approach Senlis, fearing he will be shot as a deserter. When Uhde has returned to France a decade later, he reconnects with Séraphine and helps sell her art, providing income that allows her to focus on painting and, unfortunately, helps lead to the breakdown that ultimately leaves her confined to an asylum for the last decade of her life.

Yolande Moreau (Séraphine Louis) in Séraphine
Wisely, Provost has avoided the typical pitfall of the biopic (he shares the writing credit with Marc Abdelnour), by not including a series of cameos by famous personages: there are no actors trying to incarnate Henri Rousseau, Marie Laurencin, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Daniel Kahnweiler, or Gertrude Stein, although all could conceivably be related to the story. This is a film about the life of Séraphine de Senlis, not the history of early modern art. That being said, the movie is remarkably detailed, incorporating research and historical documents into the flow of the story. At one point, Uhde's sister Anne-Marie (a laconic, enigmatic Anne Bennent) takes Séraphine's photograph by a canvas, in which the painter insists that she must look not at the camera but up toward heaven (such a photograph was actually taken by Anne-Marie Uhde). We also learn that Uhde fled Paris because his marriage had fallen apart after only a couple months (his ex-wife, Sarah Stern, then married Robert Delaunay and became Sonia Delaunay). The reason is that Uhde's preference was for men, and he returns to France with his young lover, the painter Helmut Kolle (an appropriately frail-looking Nico Rogner). At one point, Kolle is shown painting a portrait of Anne-Marie Uhde, precisely the portrait that is now in the Musée d'Art et d'Archéologie in Senlis.

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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.

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