Friday, 29 July 2011

Seraphine (2008)

I had every intention of writing today about "Hobo with a Shotgun", the newly released spin-off from the cod "Grindhouse" trailers.  I know that's pretty lowbrow on my part, but I have a lot of time for viewing gory trash -- I even liked "Machete", and Rutger Hauer remains a favourite actor, even if he has travelled a long way downhill since his charismatic early appearances in Dutch movies like "Keetje Tippel" and "Soldier of Orange".  However when we turned up at the Prince Charles repertory cinema, the movie's only showcase, we found that the showing had been cancelled for technical reasons -- whatever that means.

So for a complete contrast, let me tell you about the above French-language arthouse flick, about as far removed from sewer cinema as it is possible to travel.  I have developed a great affection for the middle-aged, Belgian-born, character actress Yolande Moreau.  Like Gerard Depardieu with whom she starred recently in "Mammuth", she has no 'side' as we say here.  That is she has no false vanity about appearing dowdy or even unashamedly and unattractively naked.  In this film which opens in 1914 and which finishes in the mid-l930s, she plays a low-born cleaner and washerwoman in a parochial French town.  She is very much her own woman without many expectations from life, nor many social skills, or even much intellect.  However after a spell living with the local nuns, she heard a call from a 'guardian angel' ordering her to paint.  She gathers materials from natural plants, butcher's blood, and cathedral candle wax to create her first small wooden panels of vibrant flowers, motifs drawn from Nature -- the fields, streams, and trees with which she feels a kinship.

Living in the area is a German art critic and collector -- amongst the first to purchase Picasso and the 'discoverer' of Henri Rousseau's fauve paintings, Wilhelm Uhde (played by Ulrich Tukur -- the Baron in "The White Ribbon"); he stumbles across her work and recognises a burgeoning, singular talent with primitive power.  He begins to purchase her paintings and to encourage her output, until he must hurriedly flee back to Germany with the outbreak of war. Move forward to the late 1920s and Uhde is back in France, living in a different town.  He makes no attempt to find Serpahine -- assuming her to be dead -- until a chance newspaper article draws him to an exhibition by local artists in her hometown of Senlis and there are two new and more ambitious works by the peasant woman.  Apparently this gap in their relatioship is historically correct, even if it is a little hard to fathom.  Anyhow he soon becomes her patron giving her a monthly stipend to concentrate on her strange paintings which he promotes to the art world.  However, this influx of cash turns an already slightly deranged mind into one craving the trappings of wealth.  Seraphine begins to lose touch with reality -- especially after she is chastised for her unbound spending, and a promised Paris exhibition is postponed by Uhde in the parlous financial times of the early 30s.  These are circumstances that the simple Seraphine is unable to understand and the strain of her perceived rejection results in such erratic behaviour that she lands in a mental asylum for the remainder of her days -- no longer painting, although Uhde does fund her final years when she once again finds some peace in Nature.  He, on the other hand, has continued selling her paintings and finally delivers the so-desired exhibition after her death, launching the powerful works of the now-named Seraphine de Senlis into art history.

This film from writer-director (and erstwhile actor) Martin Provost is slow, but involving.  It is lovingly photographed as we follow the unusual life of Moreau's Seraphine.  She is in nearly every scene and we want so much for her life to take a happier course.  Still, there is pure joy in her simple religious faith as she sweetly sings to the saints while creating her oddly vivid paintings. The 55-year old Moreau gives us yet another powerful performance to savour. 
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