France

Synopsis

1912. Séraphine Louis, 42, lives in Senlis, a small town fifty kilometers outside Paris. She earns a living doing household chores and cleaning. In her spare time, Séraphine paints, on anything that comes to hand (plates, furniture, small wooden panels). She works as a maid for Madame Duphot, who rents an apartment to a German art critic and dealer, Wilhelm Uhde, an enthusiastic advocate of modern and “primitive” artists. At a dinner party given by Madame Duphot, Wilhelm comes across a small painting that Séraphine brought over a few days previously. Mesmerized, he snaps it up and insists that Séraphine show him the rest of her work. He buys it all and encourages her to continue developing her talent. The Great War breaks out. Uhde is forced to fee France and abandon Séraphine. During the fighting, through famine, poverty and harsh winters, Séraphine never stops painting. 1927. Back in France, Wilhelm Uhde now lives in Chantilly, not far from Senlis, with his sister, Anne-Marie, and his companion, Helmut. At Anne-Marie’s insistence, he visits an exhibition of amateur painters in Senlis, where, at the far end of one of the rooms, he glimpses huge, shimmering, mystical canvases. Wilhelm immediately recognizes Séraphine’s style. Overcome with emotion, he decides to take the elderly woman under his wing once more. In the next few years, Séraphine paints her most inspired works and sells many of them but gradually loses her reason. Interned in an asylum, she passes away in 1942.

Director's Statement

Reading about the life of Séraphine de Senlis, shortly after I saw her inimitable work for the first time, my mind was filled with images. I pictured her sitting on the floor, struggling with her materials and pigments that she mixed in secret in her tiny room, completely committed to her art with the feeling of being “in the service of” some greater force. And then I pictured the actress Yolande Moreau, with her singular appeal, her hands, eyes, severity and gentleness, and I thought that, through her, I’d like to capture the intensity and incredible force that permeated Séraphine’s whole life. So, before I started to write the screenplay, I went to see Yolande at home in the country to confirm my intuition. We’d never met before. She was in her garden. I told her the story of Séraphine. I had already done a lot of research and taken a lot of notes. I had some reproductions of her paintings with me. When I finished speaking, she looked at me with strange, huge eyes (she was Séraphine already) and said, very softly, “I like it”. That was the trigger. The writing process centered on Yolande, driven by each new meeting and carried along by her enthusiasm and the perfect match between her and the character. One day, much later, I came across the hastily sketched portrait of Séraphine that appears on the front page of the script. I showed it to Yolande. The resemblance was so striking that she was even more unsettled by it than I was. When I started writing, I gradually sensed that Séraphine was questioning everything I believed in. In the script, I set out to structure Séraphine’s story around her friendship with Wilhelm Uhde, who was the first to see her as she really was and supported her to the very end. Through her meticulousness and intense faith, Séraphine imposes a particular style on the treatment of her life-story. In the film, I try to identify the process by which a woman of modest origins and naïve beliefs became a fully-fledged artist at a time when it was almost impossible to do so. And by which an urbane, sophisticated man, who was used to being served, came to serve a common working woman, then the artist and her work. I would like the film to be uncompromising, pure and uncluttered – as close as possible to Séraphine and the sensuality that distinguished her relationship to nature. Without overplaying the irrational aspects, I’d like to show the world as she saw it – sensing an invisible presence through expressions, absences, whispers. We have to enter Séraphine’s art, her suffering and rejection; experience with her the obsessive sense of purpose that makes for great art, and the sublimation of her sexuality in her relationship to her materials, in order to see grace emerge... the grace that led her into the realms of madness.
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Cast & Crew

Directed by: Martin Provost

Written by: Martin Provost

Produced by: Gilles Sacuto, Miléna Poylo

Cinematography: Laurent Brunet

Main Cast: Yolande Moreau (Séraphine), Ulrich Tukur (Ulrich Tukur) (Wilhelm Uhde), Anne Bennent (Anne-Marie), Geneviève Mnich (Mme Duphot), Nico Rogner (Helmut)

Nominations and Awards

  • European Actress 2009
  • Feature Film Selection 2009