24 March 2009

Séraphine au Cinéma

Portrait of the Artist: Moreau as Séraphine Louis

Yolande Moreau, the wonderful actress about whom I wrote a few weeks ago, did indeed win the César for Best Actress last month, for her starring role in Séraphine. (Well, technically, she won for “Meilleure Actrice,” not “Best Actress,” but work with me here.) Yesterday, I saw the movie. It’s a fascinating portrait of a painter previously unknown to me, Séraphine Louis, and it recalls the worldview of the ancients, who drew no distinction among artistic inspiration, religious inspiration, and insanity: after all, in each case the person inspired hears voices in her head. The audience’s sympathy for Séraphine is thus tempered by the awareness that … this woman is nuts.

A domestic servant by day, Séraphine Louis began painting in secret, because, she said, her guardian angel told her to. Her work caught the eye of Wilhelm Uhde, a distinguished collector who was in part responsible for the early success of Pablo Picasso and other artists, including Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau, another primitivist who came to painting from an unexpected vantage.* Played by Ulrich Tukur in the film, Uhde is quick to grasp Séraphine’s genius but slow to realize that … did I mention she’s nuts?

The fact that Uhde is making money by selling Séraphine’s paintings complicates matters in a way that the director, Martin Provost, reveals but does not analyze. Séraphine exploits Uhde, too, once he puts her on retainer and begins to pay all her bills: she goes on a shopping spree and runs up quite a tab. The relationship between artist and vendor, as seen here, isn’t merely symbiotic, it’s mutually parasitic. Most movies about artists play on the audience’s fantasies of being artists themselves; we watch Kirk Douglas and think, “Oh, I’m just like that — no one understands me, either!” But Séraphine doesn’t permit that kind of response.

Cannibals: Moreau and Tukur

Beyond the money, Uhde also derives significant gratification from encouraging the artistic bent of his cleaning lady, whom the rest of the town of Senlis considers a crank (because … she is), and whom her bourgeois employers discourage. “You’re wasting your time,” says one lady, early in the picture, and we look forward to seeing her comeuppance.

Gradually, the neighbors do take a kind of civic pride in their local artist; they dub her “Séraphine de Senlis,” which with its particule lends a certain nobility. Few have the guts to admit they don’t understand what she’s doing, with her intricate canvases of what appear to be flowers and fruit, patterned like the stained-glass windows Séraphine admires in church. One brave soul admits that she finds the images frightening, and Séraphine exclaims, “Me, too!”

The Great Depression unfortunately coincides with her success. Told that there’s a global economic crisis and that she needs to economize, she doesn’t understand; she believes that Uhde is trying to sweeten the news that other people don’t like her work. Soon she’s committed to an asylum, and again history slaps her: caring for the mentally ill wasn’t high on the priority list of the Nazis, and Séraphine died in 1942, at the height of the Occupation.

Moreau gives an astonishing performance, making Séraphine lovable enough that we understand Uhde’s affection for her, yet she doesn’t cheat the less pleasant, crazier aspects of her character’s personality. I was struck again by her animal intensity: if in Quand la mer monte she’s a cat, and in Louise–Michel she’s a lumbering bear, in Séraphine she’s a hen. As she waddles about, her eyes are constantly darting, her head tilting. She’s always alert, though seldom comprehending what she takes in.

Call of the wild, cry for help: Somebody get this boy to a therapist!

One is left to wonder whether Séraphine would have been able to create works of such genius and intensity if she’d received the care she needed. A similar question pestered me as I watched another movie this weekend, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. As inspiring as we may find Chris McCanless’ quest to commune with nature, he’s clearly possessed by a troubled mind, and whenever anyone (Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener, Kristen Stewart**) tries to engage him in a healthier relationship with the rest of humanity, Chris bolts. Ultimately, it’s a very sad little story.

* Rousseau was a customs officer, which is what “le douanier” means: Americans may not realize that it’s not his birth name but something museums feel compelled to add because, you know, he’s not a real artist.

** I spent the weekend benefiting from the “Printemps du Cinéma,” a three-day promotion in which the Banque Paribas pumps sufficient funds into the system that all movie tickets are a mere 3 Euros 50. At those prices, one will go to see anything, and I saw
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, too; the next day, I went to Into the Wild and watched in the certain belief that Ms. Stewart was Kat Dennings, the titular Norah. They’re not the same actress. Ms. Dennings is the one to watch, so vibrant and dimensional that she seems to pop out from the screen.

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