Séraphine (Provost, 2008)

seraphine1Although there may be more, I can immediately think of two primary types of artist biopics. The first is largely dependent on dramatic irony. You know (and really, the film knows) that Will is going to grow up to be Shakespeare or Ms. Austen is going to become Jane, and so every event is infused with significance. These films appeal to the vanity of the informed viewer. (I’m not saying that is all they do or that they are all necessarily bad for doing so.) Because I know who John Webster is, I take delight in the joke that is unexplained. Because I’m familiar with the plays or paintings or novels, I am instinctively a half second ahead of the reveal and feel smart. And make no mistake, people who watch movies like to feel smart; even if they know they are being pandered to on some levels.

The other type of artistic biopic revolves around the Romantic notion that art is the ultimate value and so is built around the conflict (stereotypical as it may be) between the recognition that Picasso or Glen Gould or Mozart is a total asshole who paradoxically creates sublime art. These films often focus on the audience surrogate, the gallery owner, the spouse (or loved one), the rival. Séraphine could easily have fallen into this category, with Wilhelm Uhlde (Ulrich Tukur) embodying the conflicting emotions of exhilaration (from the recognition of genius) and despair (in being unable to manage or otherwise control the source of exhilaration). The obstacles to conventionally defined success, though, lie not in a Romantic obstinacy in the character of Séraphine (though she has some of that quality) but in war and illness and circumstance.

Séraphine is not a film without faults. It meanders a bit and has an exceptionally hard time moving to resolution. Perhaps these and other problems stem from a documentary fidelity to the source material. There is, however, a deliberateness about it in pace that I like, and I found that by the end the eschewing of a triumphal conclusion (whether grounded in reality or prophetic omniscience) forced me as a viewer back to more fundamental questions about what makes life valuable—especially for those living it as opposed to just those who fall within its circle of influence.

The film is also a bit more curious about the mechanics of production rather than merely the results of it, and in this way is distinct from many of its genre that reduce the production of masterpieces to montages of the musician at the piano or artist at the easel so that it has more time to revel in payoff of art rather than the labor of it.

seraphine2As with many films about geniuses, this film invites us to ponder the mystery that lies at our inability to reconcile that final product with the vessel that created it. Perhaps the best examples of this genre can plumb that mystery rather than merely invoke it. Others can extend the mystery, using the artist as an analogue for the human, showing how the ability to transform the mundane into the meaningful helps to imbue life with meaning and not merely beauty.

If, by the end, I was more interested in Séraphine the human being than Séraphine the artist, I think that is to the film’s credit. The art is a maguffin of sorts, to get you to care about (or be interested in) the sort of person you wouldn’t otherwise give a second thought. Once you do, you care more about the art because of what it means to the human being you’ve come to care about rather than what it makes you feel when you look at it.

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