3 June 2012
Séraphine is a 50ish battle-axe of a woman at the turn of the century who cleans people’s houses and rarely pauses to hold a conversation. We see her on hands and knees, scrubbing a floor; or perhaps rolling a hand-cart full of linen down to the river to scrub them. Always, we see her barreling through town with that distinctive gait — legs awkwardly apart, back hunched a bit, mouth clamped shut, hat propped on her head. No wonder the other residents of the little town of Senlis keep her at arm’s length, reckoning her a bit simple and certainly unrefined.
Little do they know she keeps herself awake at night with her own concoction of “energy wine” so she can paint. She paints furiously, ecstatically. She paints because she can’t do anything else. She paints through the instruction of her guardian angel. She paints using colors she concocts with candle wax, pig’s blood, clay, wildflowers. And when she paints, she sings.
Why did I love this film so much? Perhaps it’s Yolande Moreau in the lead. You know her from the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie , Micmacs ) and Olivier Assayas’s sweet Paris, je t’aime (2006) — or, if you’re lucky, you’ve perhaps seen her lovely When the Sea Rises (2004) — but you probably haven’t seen her do what she’s so good at: use her expressive face almost as a mime would, to evoke mirth and melancholy all at once from her pathos.
I also loved it for its treatment of Séraphine’s idiosyncratic religious vision — her love of hymns, her love of nature (she will, on occasion, hug a tree or speak to flowers), her ecstasies, all of which inspire her art.
Also the film’s appreciation for her drive to paint. Anyone engaged in the creative process will appreciate this woman’s propulsion, her single-mindedness. You’ll recognize the madness that drives us.
But best of all was the long, slow lead-up to showing us Séraphine’s art. Knowing nothing about the real-life Séraphine de Senlis, I had no idea what to expect — and director Martin Prevost knows how to keep you in suspense. By the time he shows us the full array and impact of a large number of her works, it takes your breath away for its strange, dangerous, utterly original visions.
As luck would have it, one of the men whose house she cleans turns out to be a forward-thinking art dealer who’s helping to advance the careers of figures like Picasso and Rousseau. Monsieur Uhde is struck by Séraphine’s gift, and urges her to continue even though, as a German, he must hasten to leave France as World War I approaches. By the time he stumbles onto her some 13 years later her art has matured into a glorious, ecstatic, amazing gift, even as her fortunes have fallen further than ever.
Séraphine de Senlis was a true naïf in that she never trained as an artist; she was entirely self-taught. It’s a term that curators and gallery owners use to encapsulate a huge range of artists, and which reveals the snobbery of the art world — as do some of the other terms used, like primitive art and outsider art. These terms are inherently unsatisfactory in that they lump together an enormous range of individuals simply by the fact that they were not formally trained. A better term — at least for Séraphine — is visionary artist.
She was, indeed, visionary — in all senses of the word. See this wonderful film and bask in Moreau’s acting and the dramatic reveal of this artist’s spectacular work, in all its glory. You’ll see why Séraphine won so many prizes, and it’ll make you think about the nature of artistic compulsion and vision.
22 January 2011
I’ve been doing a lot of flying in the last few months, which I hate, and I’ve discovered the solution: a DVD with subtitles (because planes are noisy) and an utterly distracting, twisting, funny story with actors whose faces you like to look at. Believe me, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs (the full French title is Micmacs à tire-larigot, which translates to something like “nonstop shenanigans”) is what you want. Central character Dany Boon (center below, whose stage name is derived from Fess Parker’s incarnation of the early American Indian-killer Daniel Boone) is delightful: he’s the subtlest of comedians, almost in the vein of a silent great like Buster Keaton, and he’s surrounded by a pretty contortionist (Julie Ferrier, the blonde below), a man eager to regain his place in the Guinness Book for being shot out of a cannon, and a wide range of other characters whose odd skills come in handy. Confession: I will watch anything by Jeunet, and I’m only sorry I can’t take Micmacs with me on my next flight.
Jeunet’s films create little worlds unto themselves — just remember the dark sewers and mad-scientist laboratories of Delicatessen (1991) and City of Lost Children (1995), or the magically bright Paris full of weird eccentrics in Amélie (2001). One of the things I find almost embarrassingly delightful is Jeunet’s penchant for the twee — teeny props or narrative details that have little to do with the story but create an almost tactile experience of viewing. These never seem cloying or saccharine to me. Think of the actor Dominique Pinon playing a haunting song on a saw in Delicatessen; the man in Amélie who loves to eat the “oysters” from the carcass of a roast chicken; the way the telegraph delivery man insists on skidding his bike on the gravel in A Very Long Engagement (2004); or the way the little-girl Amélie sticks raspberries on her fingertips:
Memories of those twee moments come up for me all the time (and certainly when I eat roast chicken or raspberries), but if such moments fail to entrance you on their own, perhaps Micmacs will appeal for its story of a man who decides to foil two competing czars of the armaments industry. It’s a tale too convoluted and unexpected for me to summarize/ruin for you. I can assure you that no matter how many hours you’re stuck on board, no matter whether the guy in the middle seat sticks his elbow into your ribs, and no matter how vile the smell wafting from the bathroom, you’ll lose yourself in Jeunet’s screen magic. Even better if you’re a French speaker, as the English subtitles miss some of the puns and the silliest humor that relies on the nuances of the original French.
Most of all, I love Jeunet for his unabashed love of film and his playful takes on old, old storylines. In Micmacs, there’s a great scene in which our heroes break into someone’s house — but the owner shows up! What will they do?!? In Delicatessen, Jeunet includes the loveliest scene of a date between a former clown (Pinon, a Jeunet regular) and the painfully shy Julie (Marie-Laure Daugnac), who decides to remove her glasses to be more attractive, even though this means she won’t be able to see anything. The very age-old familiarity of that scene only enhances its sweetness. All of this makes me believe that Jeunet loves film on a cellular level, and that in recycling bits of film story history he has found a means of cultivating the same love in his viewers. See Micmacs and let yourself enjoy that childlike pleasure too.