She’s the woman you see in great French paintings; always in the background on a cobblestone street, her back to us, on her way to some unknown chore in a trademark blue skirt, shawl, and a precariously perched straw hat.
In Séraphine, we get to see and know her, stolid, mannish in appearance, ostracized by her townspeople, plodding resolutely to the chores finally revealed to us – making secret paint from the turpentine filtered from prayer candles, butcher’s blood and clay mined from her favored creek beds.
In less forgiving times they may have called her “simple,” leaning into the caring caress of a nun’s hand, aware of who she is and will never be, expecting nothing more than to be lied to and mocked through her life but taking joy in small things others step on or over in the course of more important lives.
And at night she grinds her own paints with ingredients painstakingly collected from the countryside of Senlis, France, daubing the unique colors onto panels and the occasional art board she buys with sous earned through a multitude of odd, demeaning chores.
Assigned to cleaning the rooms of respected but closeted German art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), Seraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau) finally allows the collector to see her secret work. Beguiled by her approach, Uhde attempts to guide the reluctant artist until World War I tears their two countries – and their burgeoning relationship – apart.
The movie gathers steam, and offers insight into Séraphine’s earlier life, after the war when Uhde, accompanied by a wounded German soldier with whom he manages a secret relationship, returns to Chantilly and re-connects with a still derelict but much artistically progressed Séraphine.
The movie does not come with a ready-made Hollywood ending. It is not a rags-to-riches story. Director, Martin Provost, who wrote the film with Marc Abdelnour, allows his camera to focus on Séraphine’s delusions as they claim her.
Séraphine de Senlis, as she eventually became known, died in a French mental institution in 1942. Today, her paintings – many of which were used in the film – hang in museums around the world.
OUR RECOMMENDATION: Well worth our time.
WHY WE LIKED IT: Effective acting and study of the human condition. Great cinematography.
BEST LINE: “I don’t collect to sell. I sell to collect…”
French-Belgian. 125 minutes. Rated NR.
Available for streaming on most services.