When a woman values her art over personal happiness, the result can yield sheer, mesmerizing beauty. Tolstoy wrote that women prevail because of their “ingrained talent” to achieve happiness, but at the same time this talent becomes their downfall in achieving true greatness. Indeed, had Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt or Marie Laurencin sacrificed a chunk of their art for romance and family or just plain mental tranquillity, would they have been able to give the world what they did?
This is the question that hovers continuously over “Seraphine,” an imagined biopic (which often work better than true-to-life stuff) of early-20th-century painter Seraphine Louis, better known as Seraphine de Senlis, after the French province where she spent most of her life.
Directed and cowritten by Martin Provost, “Seraphine” is as enigmatic and perplexing as its title character — a woman whom we first see performing the lowest domestic chores for a few sous in the years just before World War I. Seraphine (played by the always-wonderful Yolande Moreau) at this time is a blowsy, middle-aged drudge whose days are crammed with kitchen chores and washing piles of other people’s sheets in the local river.
At night, Seraphine comes to life; she grinds a “secret mixture” of herbs, berries and chicken blood (nabbed from the butcher when he isn’t looking) and paints on small pieces of wood, with diminutive candles as her only source of light. Seraphine’s state of mind has transcended ordinary standards of happiness; she paints because she’s convinced that God wants her to, and her only worry is whether she has enough time.
Seraphine has no family or social ties — she communicates with the world by talking to trees or singing hymns while bathing nude in a pond. When she stands in the middle of a field to pee (holding up the folds of her skirts and staring into the sky), her face is filled with voluptuous rapture.
Seraphine would probably have carried on like this, but a Parisian art critic steps into her life and paints over her canvas. Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a leader of the prewar German arts community in Paris and a personal friend of Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau, had gone to Senlis to get a breather from the frenetic pace of his life in the city. Seraphine, hired as a maid, never lets on that she’s an artist herself but is drawn to Wilhelm’s cultured ways and sketchbooks that he fills with pencil drawings.
For his part, Wilhelm discovers her work and discerns her genius immediately. He loves her combination of colors and the hushed, hidden energy her portraits pulsate, and becomes the first person in her life to explain the power and beauty of her paintings to her. He also gives Seraphine money — enough to settle her overdue rent and her credit at the paint shop.
Seraphine feels like a human being, respected and valued in her own right, but never at any point does Wilhelm encourage her to feel like a woman. Perhaps it is just as well. Wilhelm himself is unsure just how to treat Seraphine — he wants her to paint, but he also demands that she iron his shirts. And when war blasts the little town, he promptly disappears, leaving her confused and stranded.
“Seraphine” never degenerates into a rags-to-riches success story, and unlike most biopics — imagined or otherwise — Provost never does anything so gauche as to dot the “i”s and tell us what it is that Seraphine wants. It’s unlikely that anything glamorous will happen to the overweight, unwashed and aging artist, but she has a definite fascination, precisely because her priorities lie far, far away from anything as yawn-inducing as conventional feminine success.
As for happiness, Provost wastes no time in telling us that Seraphine never had any, but so what? A disturbing, naive sadness is one of the defining factors of her paintings; and as Seraphine advises Wilhelm, “When you are sad and can’t stand it, walk the countryside and talk to a tree!”
Eventually, the real Seraphine’s sadness grew too large for that solution, but thankfully the film does not dwell on the tragedy. In the end, “Seraphine” is a small, quiet celebration of the fact that this woman lived and painted; and by doing so, continues to enrich our lives.