The time is 1914, just before the beginning of World War I.
The place is a shabby chateau in the French countryside. Seraphine is the true
story of Seraphine de Senlis, a cleaning lady who takes up painting at the age
of 41. She is a femme de ménage at the
chateau, scrubbing its floors and cooking meals. Seraphine is deeply devout and
experiences ecstatic visions which she paints using colors scrounged from the
countryside mixed with holy oil from the local church.
The owner of the chateau rents out suites of rooms to
travelers, and one such guest is Wilhelm Uhde, a German art critic and the
owner of a gallery in Paris. He had discovered the painter Rousseau, and had
been one of the first to buy the cubist art of Picasso and Braque. He happens
across one of Seraphine’s paintings, and becomes her champion. But the war
breaks out and he is swept away. Worldwide acclaim and success slip through her
fingers, and she continues to labor in obscurity.
At first I experienced Seraphine, as a guilty pleasure.
Photographed in the French countryside, in picturesque towns built of ancient
grey stone, and in a beautiful old chateau, I drank Seraphine down in one
long, delicious slurp. I especially loved the old kitchen in the chateau, with
its copper pots and blackened fireplace. The countryside looks like scenes from
the paintings of Camille Pissarro, with sparkling brooks and roads lined with
poplar trees shimmering in the breeze.
But there is much more to this movie than its being
beautiful and atmospheric. It’s also a penetrating look at the sometimes
heartbreaking lives of artists, and the mystery that art can be. Seraphine
experienced visions and was ultimately confined in an institution. Given that
in some societies she might have been revered as a holy woman, we may wonder as
we watch whether Seraphine was mentally ill or was she touched by God? And
given that she had a sadly difficult life, much of it spent on her hands
and knees scrubbing floors, do we feel sorry for Seraphine, or do we envy her
speaking to angels?
(Note: This film is in French, with optional English subtitles.)