Saturday, September 19, 2009


In 1905, Séraphine de Senlis, (Yolande Moreau) a dowdy, devout forty-one year housekeeper was told by her guardian angel to start painting. For Séraphine painting was a sacred calling. She took inspiration from nature where she felt the breath of God in the wind and heard him whisper in the trees. She sang hymns of praise to the Holy Virgin as she painted startlingly colorful leaves. While working as his housekeeper, Séraphine was discovered by Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Turkur) the German art critic who collected Picasso and championed the naive primitive painter Le Douanier Rousseau. Wilhem became her patron and grouped her works with other naive painters that were dubbed, "The Sacred Heart Painters."

This beautiful film is set in Senlis, Italy (just outside of Paris.) I found it compelling and inspiring to watch Séraphine gather ingredients for paint from nature, food, housekeeping supplies, and even turpentine from the votive candles at the Catholic cathedral. During the day, she toiled away scrubbing floors and washing sheets in order to support her art. At night she came alive during her sacred ritual of painting.

As an artist and writer, I feel that my creativity is a gift from God. It was inspiring to watch how her spiritual connection to nature and art fed her soul. So it was disturbing to me when the voices in her head grew louder and made irrational demands as Séraphine descended into madness.

The film brings up questions about the fine line between artistic genius and madness. Was it a gift from God or just an hallucination? When Séraphine shows her painting of leaves that seem to move on the canvas, the Mother Superior inquires, "Are you sure they are from God?" In her later paintings the boldly colored leaves resemble flickering flames much like the burning bush that spoke to Moses. Perhaps she came too close to seeing the face of God. I may be reading too much into the symbolism here. Though there are times when the symbolism in a film surpasses the filmmaker's intentions.

In the film, the idea of fame and fortune encroach on Séraphine's thoughts and creative inspiration. Perhaps it blocked her divine connection. After she found her patron, she had more time to paint. But she spent less time in nature and singing hymns. Perhaps it was her separation from God that made her crazy. Again I'm reaching. But that's what makes film so powerful - it's ability inspire us to think.

"Séraphine," was the winner of 7 Cesar Awards (French Oscars) including Best Picture and Best Actress (for Yolande Moreau.) Check out this evocative film for yourself and come up with your own interpretation. I would love to hear it.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal


1 comment:

pgreene said...

Awesome story and a powerful review. I found myself wondering if Seraphine was merely another fragile artist who had stepped outside her expected position in life. People who profess no creativity or consider art superfluous may not realize how tentative are the baby steps of a developing artist and how easily the development can be squelched by the self doubt authoritative figures can plant. Actually, I've often wondered if our cultures don't deliberately prune the artistic inclination out of children. It often seems like it.