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Sraphine
UKScreen Rating:

Sraphine – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In the run-up to the first world war, a German art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Tukur) rents a house in the French city of Senlis.
He’s not interested in most of the high society people living nearby, but accepts an invitation to a dinner party, against his better judgement, and ends up falling out with the other guests. As he leaves the table, a small painting – colourful childlike flowers on a piece of wood – catches his eye.
He’s told it was painted by his cleaner, Séraphine (Moreau), a shy, middle-aged, eccentric, socially inept and, slightly simple woman, who finds the ingredients of her paints in some unorthodox places and generally keeps herself to herself.
He buys the painting and next time Séraphine comes to clean his house, he asks her to see what else she has done.
Fascinated by her – and her work – he buys several of her paintings and encourages her to build up a collection big enough for him to exhibit, paying her to paint.
The outbreak of war brings everything to a shuddering halt; as a German, Wilhelm cannot remain in France. But several years later, once peace has returned, Wilhelm is back in Senlis and discovers that Séraphine is still painting.
He finds her and once again becomes her benefactor. But this time, the money goes to her head; she becomes selfish and spendthrift and before long, Wilhelm starts struggling to meet her rising demands and withdraws his financial support.
Bereft, like many artists, Séraphine starts to lose her mind and ends up committed to a local asylum.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

The eccentric artist who goes mad is hardly an unfamiliar concept on the big screen, but there’s no doubt that seeing a cleaning lady with evident learning difficulties and a lack of any social skills rise to a position of respect and prominence in the art world is clearly a story of interest.
Moreau is not the typical leading lady of a French film – but Séraphine is not the typical leading character. She seems equally comfortable on her knees cleaning as she seems on her knees painting and watching her gather the ingredients for her paint is fascinating.
But Séraphine de Senlis – and her naïve art style – won’t be too familiar to most viewers, which raises the issue of how important she is as an artist and so, whether she is worthy of a biopic. For many viewers, this is a film about a cleaner who enjoys painting but isn’t really that good at it, given undue prominence by a dealer who’s rebelling against the establishment. At risk of sounding like an artistic ignoramus, we don’t get a sense – other than the opinion of one man – whether she did actually have any talent – perhaps more than many other styles, naïve art is, at the least, an acquired taste.
When you’re dealing with a real-life story, it’s not really fair to criticise the film for sending its tortured soul of an eccentric artist to die alone in an asylum, but it does seem rather hackneyed.
And as a drama, it’s rather unsatisfying – perhaps a consequence of a life which wasn’t actually that dramatic.
It’s one of those stories where things just happen to the protagonist – she happened to paint – her paintings happened to be discovered by someone who liked them – he happened to support her – she happened to be unable to cope with the fame and ended up in an institution. She didn’t make her own luck and nothing she did actually changed her path and little was made of whether her insanity was simply a manifestation of her inability to handle success, or whether she’d have gone mad anyway.
The film’s attention to detail is to be admired, but it’s slow and the way it jumps several years at a time feels clumsy and we’re left with the sense that without meeting Wilhelm, Séraphine de Senlis was little more than an insane, cleaning lady with a hobby. This would make Wilhelm the most important character of the film – and Wilhelm is a rather dour fellow who is certainly not interesting enough to carry a feature.
Had Séraphine de Senlis gone on to become a Van Gogh or a Monet, for example, the film would have had more pathos and more credibility. As it is, it’s a biopic of someone who was almost certainly the talk of the town, but every town has someone like that – and you wouldn’t make a film about them.

Opens nationwide 27th November 2009

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