Starring Yolande Moreau. Directed by Martin Provost.
Rated PG (mild themes). 126mins.

This is the kind of film that we say is typically French and that the French do so well.  It re-creates the period just before World War I in rural France and then moves to 1927.  It is well-paced, with elegance and dignity.  The performances are excellent, with Yolande Moreau winning the Cesar as Seraphine and Ulrich Turkur (so fine in John Rabe) as an art dealer, and the visuals, the period music just right.

We first see Seraphine as a middle-aged woman, devout, simple, not quite right in the head, who cleans and cooks and has an old-style peasant bluff and brusque manner.  The film spends quite some time establishing her character and her behaviour and attitudes.  We also see that she keeps to herself – and communes with nature in the woods when she is sad.

For those audiences who were not in the know, it soon becomes clear that Seraphine paints, creating her materials from all kinds of local ingredients which are her secret.  A German art dealer comes to live in the town and Seraphine works for him.  He discovers a painting after a dinner with the locals who fancy themselves as artistic and who look down on Seraphine.  He is entranced and encourages Seraphine with her distinctive style of painting flowers and fruit.  But, war breaks out and he has to flee with his sister.  For Seraphine, life continues as before.

Until 1927 when the dealer returns and finds that Seraphine is still alive and painting.  This is her heyday and she is exhilarated.  With the Wall St crash and the consequences in Europe, the dream comes to an end and Seraphine has a mental breakdown spending years in an institution.

The film informs us at the end that Seraphine is recognised as a key artist of the first half of the 20th century.

Not only does the film offer a biography well drawn in the social contexts of the time, it communicates something of the artistic processes of the unschooled and intuitive Seraphine – told to paint by her guardian angel, singing hymns as she works, dissatisfied with her work but, while unworldly and simple, not averse to success and material benefits.  Once again, the artist is caught up in madness and creativity.

Out 27th August 2009 

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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