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Juggling Scrub Brush and Paint Brush

Séraphine (2008)

Music Box Films

The act of painting is a visual one and therefore inherently cinematic. Artists are usually interesting individuals with complicated personal lives and dramatic outlooks — or so the stereotypes say. So movies about painters are visually and dramatically interesting. Except, of course, when they are not.

Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau) was a bonne à toute faire (a woman worker who could do anything in the home; literally, a jill-of-all-trades) in Senlis, a small town outside Paris, in the 1910s when she started working for Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German escaping the city life of Paris. They interacted as a bourgeois bohemian normally interacts with his cleaner, until he realized that she painted. As it happened, he was one of Europe's premier art critics, and so Séraphine's career was born.

Known in the art world as Séraphine de Senlis, she is considered one of the greatest female naive or outsider artists — one of the art world's patronizing terms to cover those who create art without a formal artistic education. With the paints and canvases Uhle provided, Séraphine was able to produce enormous works of art. Her real paintings, which mostly were of flowers, feature prominently in the film. The movie's clever color scheme of blues, reds, browns and whites is clearly inspired by the artworks, emphasizing Séraphine's connection to nature and also her poverty.

But director Martin Provost based his film on Uhle's recollections of Séraphine. It's as if a Johnny Cash biopic boasted of being as told by his agent. The years in between the two world wars — when Séraphine and Uhle lost contact — are largely skipped over, as if Séraphine didn't exist when she wasn't interacting with the external art world. Ms. Moreau, who works frequently with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, captures perfectly the downcast, outcast outlook of an ill-educated hick who must slave away for the condescending middle class around her. The film's denouement perfectly captures her relationship with the wider world, as the women whose houses she cleans trail after her in their bathrobes, hands either clasped to their necks in fear or fluttering in nervous inaction. Since the movie has been built on such a slender base, it begs two questions: Why was it made at all? And why did it win seven Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscar)?

Guilt has been a strong recent theme in French cinema. Michael Haneke's "Caché" (and previously "Code Unknown") has confrontationally examined the underbelly of polite French society. Mathieu Kassovitz’s "La haine" opened up French movies to the immigrants who were traditionally excluded; and Laurent Cantet's "The Class" blew that door wide open; Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" is the latest triumph. Going a step further, Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory" combined Mr. Haneke's and Mr. Kassovitz's themes to shame the French government into finally providing pensions for the north African soldiers who fought in the French army in the second world war.

However, the uneasy racial tensions in France have meant some of these works are less than appealing, such as the recent "Micmacs," in which Ms. Moreau had a small part. In this movie, the guilt is about gender and class, not race. So the guilt France feels about Séraphine’s life has been assuaged by paying attention to her art after her death. Heaping awards on the film that brought it to wider attention is one way to redress those wrongs — except that guilt about the subject matter does not make a good film. What's worse, since Isabelle Adjani starred in "Camille Claudel" in 1988, this has all been done before.

It's great we're learning about Séraphine Louis and that her work is finally being appreciated on its own terms. But as a movie, this doesn't work at all — it's not capable of delving into her relationship with her work, and her life is not deemed important enough to examine on its own. A documentary about her paintings would have been more dramatic — and more satisfying.


Opened on Nov. 27 in Britain.

Directed by Martin Provost; written by Mr. Provost and Marc Abdelnour; director of photography, Laurent Brunet; edited by Ludo Troch; music by Michael Galasso; produced by Miléna Poylo and Gilles Sacuto; released by Metrodome Distribution. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: Yolande Moreau (Séraphine), Ulrich Tukur (Wilhelm Uhde), Anne Bennent (Anne Marie), Geneviève Mnich (Madame Duphot), Nico Rogner (Helmut), Adélaïde Leroux (Minouche), Serge Larivière (Duval) and Françoise Lubrun (Mère Supérieure).


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