Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur in Séraphine



A movie for every day of the year – a good one



13 May


Julian of Norwich’s visions, 1373

On this day in 1373, a woman who lived in Norwich recovered from an unspecified illness during which she had started seeing visions of Jesus Christ. The illness had been serious and she had not been expected to survive. As a result of making the unexpected recovery the woman became an anchoress (ie a hermit who lived in a cell attached – anchored – to a church). No one knows what her name was, but because the church she was anchored to was called St Julian’s, she became known as Julian of Norwich. She subsequently wrote a book about her visions, and the wisdom that Jesus had imparted while she was having them. She called the book Revelations of Divine Love, and it is the oldest book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. It was hugely popular. Over the next 30 years Julian would expand on her original text, the so-called Short Text, in a longer book exploring the theological implications of what she had learnt. In short, her writings re-aligned the figure of God from one of Old Testament rules, justice and retribution into a more New Testament God based on love, joy and compassion. She also held that God was both a father and mother, and that sin is the result of ignorance, not wickedness. She is best known for the phrase “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” which she claimed was spoken to her by God him (or her) self.




Séraphine (2008, dir: Martin Provost)

Here’s the story of the “modern primitive” artist Séraphine de Louis, aka Séraphine de Senlis, a naive French painter who died in a mental asylum in the 1940s and who spent her life skivvying to keep body and soul together, while painting in whatever time remained. This is a hard genre to get right, the biopic of the tortured artist, but director Martin Provost has done it. And it’s thanks in no small part to Yolande Moreau as Séraphine.

With a face and a figure more usually seen in comedies (she was in Amélie and Micmacs, by Jean-Pierre Jeunet), Moreau puts a human spin on a character who could easily have been forbidding and remote. Instead Moreau’s Séraphine is a harmless clumpy frump, a woman who uses mud, blood and wax stolen from church to make her pigments for the pictures she paints. By day an awkward, shy woman who might wash bed linen in the river, by night Séraphine disappears into euphoric religious raptures while she creates. Provost and Moreau spend a long long time getting this character established in deed rather than word, letting us come to an appreciation of Séraphine as a woman and of her style as a painter – her flowers and fruit drawn from nature, with something of Henri Rousseau and Van Gogh about them. Then comes the catalyst in in her life: Ulrich Tukur as Wilhelm Uhde, the German art dealer who is hiding out in a remote French village ostrich-like as the First World War approaches, and whose patronage changed Séraphine’s prospects – for good and ill.

As for accuracy, true-to-lifeness, that’s up for grabs. What makes Séraphine unusual as a film about an artist is that it goes into great detail about the artist’s working methods. The art itself is often the last thing on a biopic’s mind; think of Anthony Hopkins in Surviving Picasso or Salma Hayek in Frida, about Frida Kahlo, and tittle-tattle rather than insight into the life artistic seems to be what’s on offer. But more than the art, Provost and Moreau seem to be making a larger point about artists as a whole – even borderline insane ones, perhaps especially borderline insane ones. That in a secular world these holy innocents have taken the role of saints. And in Séraphine, we have the perfect intermediary.



Why Watch?


  • Yolande Moreau’s remarkable performance
  • A fascinating portrait of a real person
  • Plenty of shots of Séraphine’s work
  • Winner of seven Césars, the French Oscars


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Séraphine – at Amazon







4 thoughts on “Séraphine”

  1. Veteran actress Yolande Moreau gives a dedicated performance in this biopic about the neo-primitive, or "naive," or "outsider" flower painter Séraphine Louis (1864-1948), now called Séraphine de Senlis, from the town where she worked. An orphan looked down on by all, she survived barely by doing cleaning and laundry paid by the job, but in her little room in town at night by candlelight made strange, visionary paintings of flowers in large clusters, looking like diamonds or insects. Raised and cared for in early life by nuns, she sang to the Virgin when she finished a painting. Beautifully photographed, meditative, with a strong sense of the quietude of rural France in the teens and twenties, this picture doesn't provide deep insight into either Séraphine or the German art collector who discovered and supported her, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur, another veteran; he has one of the secondary leads in The Lives of Others). Uhde deserves his own biopic. He was the first to purchase the works of Picasso and discovered the great modern primitive Henri "Le Douanier" Rousseau.

    Slowly, methodically, the film shows how Uhde finds out by chance that the haggard looking middle aged woman cleaning up in the big rented house he's living in in Senlis with his sister is doing unique paintings on wood. Nobody else around appreciates them or, in fact, understands modern art. He buys all her work from Séraphine and urges her to concentrate on her art. But WWI comes, and as a German he is forced to leave precipitously, leaving behind his little notebook and most of the art he's collected in France.

    Uhde returns years later with his sister and also a male lover, Helmut Kolle (Nico Rogner), a talented young German expressionist painter dying of TB, and rents another house in the area. He comes across Séraphine's work and finds it more ambitious and much more brilliant. He puts her on a generous monthly stipend. She shows signs of mania, and her disappointment when she finds the Paris exhibition must be put off due to the worldwide financial crisis leads her into insanity. The trajectory is ever downward, though the final scenes suggest that her last years in a sanatorium may have been spend it serenity, close to the nature she loved.

    This film is thorough and handsomely made, but a little too much on the dutiful and academic side. It has parallels as a story with Bruno Nuytten's 1988 Camille Claudel, but it has neither the level of drama nor the presence of Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani (as Rodin and Claudel) to give it energy. As director Provost has said, Uhde had a "dark side": his willingness to virtually abandon Séraphine when things got rough for her, and not to bother looking for her when he first returns to France after the War. Provost leaves this mysterious, which is just historically, but unsatisfying cinematically. But Provost did apparently help organize the recent Musée Maillol exhibition of Séraphine's work. And this film is a thought-provoking addition to the on-screen literature of outsider or visionary art.

    The film opened in theaters in Paris on October 1, 2008 to respectful if not overly enthusiastic reviews. It has been bought by Music Box in the US, but no release has been announced. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, NYC, in March 2009.

  2. 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.

  3. This extraordinary biographical film tells the dramatic story of French paintress Séraphine de Senlis. The tale starts in the summer before the First World War when a known German art collector and critic Wilhelm Uhde accidentally finds out that his servant woman is an amateur artiste painting in naïve but highly innovative and original style. She was doing so because she had a vision of divine being who has told her to begin to paint pictures. Where does genius end and madness begin? Or are they just two sides of the same phenomenon? Questions poised by this artful drama hardly have the answers. To say that Yolande Moreau playing the role of Séraphine Louis is unique is to say the least. Camille Claudel is another brilliant movie in the same vein.

  4. Seraphine Louis,who would eventually change her name to Seraphine deSenlis (after the name of her hometown)was an artist who cleaned houses by day,and painted by night (all the time while singing the hymns of her staunch Catholic upbringing,while she was growing up an orphan by Nuns). Seraphine is pretty much maligned by the village locals,taunted by children,and pretty much avoided by most all that know her. When German art collector & critic,Wilhelm Uhde rents a room in the town of Senlis,while on the run from the insanity of World War I,and discovers a painting by Seraphine & is amazed by it's use of colour & texture. When the war moves ever closer,Uhde & his sister escapes the madness. Years later,he returns to Senlis,rediscovers an aged,but still painting Seraphine & vows to put her work on display (despite the fallout of the Wall Street crash of 1929,as well as the subsequent great depression,that managed to cripple a good percentage of Europe's economy,as well). Martin Provost directs & co writes (with Marc Abdelnoir)a lovingly depicted portrait of a woman possessed of genius that is cruelly stolen too early (deSenlis spent her aged years in an insane asylum & never painted again in life). Yolande Moreau plays Seraphine,a woman unpossesed by pretentious,real fine. Ulrich Tukur plays Wilhelm Uhde,in a winning role that depicts Uhde as an impresario of art first,and who's personal life is down played,somewhat (in life,Uhde was an ardent homosexual that made no bones about his gay lifestyle). The photography is a real treat for the eye (at times,the composition of visual images are very painterly,such as films such as 'Tous Le Matin Du Monde'). A film to check out for those with a love of art,or art history (or both). Spoken in French & German with English subtitles. Not rated by the MPAA,this film contains flashes of nudity & adult content.

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