Tuesday, October 12, 2010


SeraphineWhat if your cleaning lady turns out to be a painter who doesn't know how great she is?

I didn't imagine that possibility until I watched Séraphine, a 2008 French-Belgian film directed by Martin Provost. It's set in Senlis, France during the early 1900's . An art collector is visiting the region and is staying in one of the rented apartments. There he meets Seraphine (Yolande Moreau), the cleaning lady. She doesn't wear any shoes. She speaks with unmistakable childlikeness. She's rather dumb.

One day, though, he discovers an artwork lying in one corner. He looks for the artist. He's shocked to hear that his cleaning lady made it. And, oh boy, could she paint! He gets excited. He thinks of setting up an art exhibit in Paris.

We see Séraphine picking out flowers and grass to make her paint material. We see her take aliquots of animal blood in the kitchen to make a fiery red shade. We see her talking to the trees. We see her taking a bath in the river, getting herself muddied, and taking her time off. When the art collector asks her about her secret, she shyly begs off: it would cease to be a secret if she told.

Things don't go on as planned because war breaks out. The collector leaves the country because any German in French soil will be shot.

After the war, the collector thinks that Séraphine is dead. When he gets the chance to visit Senlis again, he attends a town art exhibition. He gets giddy when he sees a familiar painting. He rushes to Séraphine's house. They see each other. It's a warm reunion.

Eventually Seraphine works for him. She paints; he sells the painting. It gets disturbing because at this point, Séraphine starts having weird dreams and premonitions. She's talking about angels. She's locking herself out from the world. Clearly she's on the road to insanity.

We see her in a mental asylum. She has forgotten her art. She has forgotten who she is. She is detached from the world, isolated in her own imaginations—which makes us ask, are great artists condemned to tragic endings?

In the end we're shocked to know that Séraphine is Séraphine Louise, the French painter known for her "predominantly rich fantasies of intensely repeated and embellished floral arrangements." It's a true story, after all.

Ate Terry, the wonderful labandera who brings me—and some of my classmates—fresh clothes every Monday and Thursday, looks nothing like Séraphine, but I'm sure it wouldn't hurt if I asked her if she paints.



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