“Séraphine” Portrait of a Woman Unknown

A review of Martin Provost’s new biopic: a sensitive, atmospheric portrait of the troubled French painter Séraphine de Senlis (1864-1948).

poster for

"Séraphine" Film

at Cinema Village
in the Villages area
This event has ended - (2009-06-26 - 2009-07-23)

In Reviews by Sarah Rapp 2009-06-29 print

Yolande Moreau as Séraphine. Courtesy Music Box Films.

Séraphine,” the new biopic by Martin Provost, is a sensitive, atmospheric portrait of the troubled French painter Séraphine de Senlis (1864-1948). When the film begins, Séraphine, superbly played by Yolande Moreau, spends her days diligently scrubbing floors and preparing rooms. She also has a second job at a butcher shop, where she plunges her hands into a bloody bowl and surreptitiously fills a vial with the red liquid. She spends the little money she has on white paint, and gathers pigments for it throughout the day (hence the red vial at the butcher). At night in her cramped room, she sings—off key and with passion—while she paints. That she is mentally ill is not obvious at first; it’s easy to mistake her disability for naiveté, or a symptom of her simple, lonely life.

Like so many stories about discovered genius, the monotony of Séraphine’s routine existence soon blossoms into a life marked with recognition and respect. Wilhelm Uhde, a renowned art dealer, decides to sponsor her after happening upon one of her small floral paintings, done in a “primitive modernist style” and marked by colorful swirls of the countryside.

Unlike a typical rags-to-riches story though, director Provost denies his audience the emotional gratification of his heroine’s success. Everything about Séraphine—her social ineptitude, her lack of good looks, her solitary nature—makes it difficult to enjoy her brief moments of triumph. Neither she nor viewers are ever comfortable with the attention, and it comes as no surprise when it inevitably all comes crashing down.

A creeping feeling of melancholy and detachment pervades this homage to the troubled genius who is kept at emotional arms length throughout the film. Not much is divulged about the painter’s life or her childhood as an orphan; the audience is privy only to the strict routines and simple tasks that mark her present existence. Part historical text, part love song for an unlikely heroine, “Séraphine” will leave audiences with a bittersweet feeling. It is filled with moody complications and excellent performances.

Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur. Courtesy Music Box Films.

Sarah Rapp

Sarah Rapp. Sarah Rapp is a film student and soon to be graduate of Barnard College. Her main interests include reading, writing, and watching, and then writing for arts and pop culture publications about what she reads and watches. She has yet to venture away from the tri-state area for longer than a few months, and has no problem with this. An aspiring filmmaker, her subject matter ranges from a history of Capital Punishment in the U.S. to an expose on bathrooms. » See other writings

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