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In 1914, Wilhelm Uhde, a famous German art collector, rents an apartment in the town of Senlis, forty kilometers away from Paris, in order to write and to take a rest from the hectic life he has been living in the capital. The cleaning lady is a rather rough-and-ready forty-year-old woman who is the laughing stock of others. One day, Wilhelm who has been invited by his landlady, notices a small painting lying about in her living room. He is stunned to learn that the artist is no other than Séraphine. Written by
A frumpy cleaning woman well into middle age is discovered by an art critic to be a painter with talent comparable to Vincent Van Gogh. Her story is told in the riveting Seraphine, directed by Martin Provost and winner of seven Césars, the French version of the Oscars, including a best actress award for Yolande Moreau. With a screenplay by Martin Provost and Marc Abdelnour, the film is set in the village of Senlis outside of Paris where Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau) lives alone and must take odd jobs just to pay for her painting supplies. Séraphine is a visionary, a devout Catholic who believes she is guided by a guardian angel and her exotic paintings of flowers and plants describe her feelings of closeness to spirit.
Treated with disdain by her condescending employer, her life takes on new meaning when a tenant, German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) hires Séraphine to clean for him and accidentally discovers one of her paintings that her boss had tossed aside. A champion of modern "primitvist" artists who is credited with early recognition of Picasso and Rousseau, Uhde is portrayed by Tukur as a quiet, unassuming man who lives with his sister and a gay lover. He recognizes Séraphine's talent but never shows much enthusiasm, preferring to keep their relationship on a very business-like basis.
Impressed by Seraphine's passionate art, Uhde offers to become her patron but, feeling estranged in France, must soon leave the country to return to Germany as the First World War begins. Although Séraphine continues to paint, she has no connection with Uhde until the latter part of the 1920s when he provides her with the means to quit her job and paint full time. Unfortunately, her grip on reality falters and she is soon hospitalized after indulging in spending sprees on a wedding dress and purchase of a large mansion. One of the saddest scenes in the film is that of Séraphine dressed in a full wedding gown, going door to door giving her away her possessions.
Provost in Séraphine captures the artist's mystical nature and her close bond with nature that shows up in her works, which are still exhibited in many of the world's museums. She is shown hugging trees, climbing them, and standing as a tiny speck beneath a towering shade tree. One scene shows her standing nude in water up to her chest in a nearby river. Provost takes a minimalist approach and the film does not contain much dialogue. The story is told by the silences and facial expressions and the music by Michael Galasso adds richness to the experience. Fully capturing the eternal mystery of the creative process, Séraphine itself is a work of art.
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