On Friday, PJ and I saw Seraphine, a movie about Seraphine Louis, a French painter who lived from 1864 to 1942. Here’s the trailer:

Louis painted in the “naive style” and was discovered by Wilhelm Uhde, who was one of the earliest collectors of works by Pablo Picasso and George Braque. Louis was a domestic servant for middle class families when Uhde first saw her one of her still-lifes in 1912. His patronage of her work was interrupted by World War I.  He fled the advancing German army and did not see Louis again until 1927. Uhde then worked to get Louis’s paintings exhibited, and in 1929 she began to see great success. But the Great Depression undercut her ability to sell her work, and in 1932 she was admitted to a mental hospital, where she spent the rest of her life.

Seraphine recounts Louis’s discovery by and subsequent relationship with Uhde. Yolande Moreau plays the title role. Not knowing anything about Louis before seeing this movie made watching Moreau’s performance more interesting, I think. Early in the film, we see that Seraphine isn’t like everyone else. At first, this just seems to be the stereotypical “artist’s temperament.” Later we realize that she’s suffered from mental issues all along. Moreau therefore has the difficult job of conveying to the audience Seraphine’s mental instability without making her seem totally crazy from the get go. I thought she did a great job of making us care about her character. She also gives us a great sense of Louis’s connection of painting as a religious experience.

Since the film is about Louis’s paintings, I thought I should include a sample in my review. Here’s a work that is currently housed in the Musee d’art de Senlis:

Ulrich Tukur plays Uhde. Uhde was homosexual, and the movie does an interesting job of depicting his sexuality. Again, I knew nothing about these figures before seeing the film, so I wasn’t looking for clues to his sexuality when we’re first introduced to him. Fairly quickly, however, Uhde makes it clear to Seraphine that he has no sexual interest in women, but we don’t really get a sense of his private life until later in the film, when we see him with a male lover suffering from tuberculosis.

The film’s depiction of this relationship is really affecting. At first, I thought that Uhde was with this man, Helmut Kolle, played by Nico Rogner, because he’s young and beautiful. That Kolle is also an artist initially made the relationship seem more about these two men using each other — Uhde gets a young lover, and Kolle gets to advance his art career. However, as the film progresses we get a different view of their relationship, one that emphasizes their mutual love and tenderness for one another.

I also liked the film’s quick reference to how closeted their relationship had to be. There’s a scene in which Kolle has to change beds in the morning so that the servants won’t know that the two men had spent the night sharing one bed. It’s a quiet, non-preachy moment in the film that really struck me as illustrative of just how difficult gay men’s lives were in the early twentieth century, even in France.

But, of course, the film’s not really about Uhde and Kosse; it’s about Seraphine. The one criticism I had of the movie is that it does kind of go all over the place. The movie covers issues of art, religion, artistic and religious ecstasy, homosexuality, war, antisemitism, mental health, and class. It might have been a little better if it had concentrated on a smaller set of issues.

Even so, I really liked this movie and especially its depiction of tortured genius. Its scene of how Louis obtained and made her paints early in the movie and of her showing her paintings to various townspeople later in the film were wonderful. Overall, I think it’s a really good film.

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