FILM JULY 1, 2009
Seraphine--Music Box Films
24 City--Cinema Guild
Seraphine de Senlis (1864-1942) was a servant and a painter. She worked as a housemaid, a laundress, a butcher's helper, anything she could find. She also painted, in her room at night. Some of her work now hangs in museums.
The French director Martin Provost has made a film about her, called Seraphine, which he wrote with Marc Abdelnour. Laurent Brunet is at the camera, and Yolande Moreau is in the title role. Of course the prevailing sensibility was Provost's, but the gifts of all these people have created a film that holds and enfolds. And it leaves us with an ancient haunting mystery.
Seraphine is Provost's fourth feature, and clearly he wanted to do more than tell the story of her life, which is much too singular for mere recounting. He wanted the very texture of the film to amplify the story as it unfolded. With Brunet's cinematography, in which beauty is immediate, and with Moreau's acting, which is an embrace more than a performance, and with his own insight and spirit, Provost has made a picture that is almost biblical in its simplicity and its passion. More, he has brought about a paradox: Seraphine, like many superior films, is part of the film world yet seems nearly to renounce it.
It is 1914 in Senlis, a town not far from Paris. No music at the start, then a chorus is heard as we move across a body of water into a church and there discover Seraphine praying, singing. She is middle-aged, plain, with the face of a woman resigned to hardship but not beaten by it. Visually, the opening sequence has a suggestion of blue in it, as if the air were azure, and that tint is consistent through most of the film's indoor scenes. The outdoor scenes- -the fields, the flowers, the trees--are viewed in such a way that, when eventually we see some of Seraphine's paintings, which are all of trees and flowers, we understand them. We understand, too, why at one point she climbs up a great tree merely to sit on one of its branches, to be with it, to view the world (we believe that she believes) as the tree does.
Her chief job is as a housemaid in a place where the owner, a sharp woman, takes in tenants. Seraphine is treated brusquely but is no meek slavey: she is sufficiently snippy that, from time to time, her boss reproves her. Yet she slaves. And she has her secret. At night, in her room, she paints, on small wooden panels. She works by candlelight: we even see her tip wax out of lighted church candles into a container that she takes home to refresh her own candles. She grinds her own colors: she paints with her fingers. We never discover how she learned to do any of these things: we just know that it happened.
But we do know how her work is discovered. A German art critic, Wilhelm Uhde, wealthy and renowned, comes to stay in the house where she works and, by accident, sees one of her paintings. He is immediately struck by its adoring yet forceful view of some flowers. He speaks with Seraphine and learns that she is in love with natural things: she talks to trees, to birds, to flowers. He is taken with her ease about her extraordinary feelings. He has influence in Paris and moves to bring her work to others' attention--or would move except that it is now August 1914. The German army is advancing, and if Uhde is found here by the Germans, he will be shot as a deserter. He goes home.
He doesn't return to France until 1927, to a place not far from Senlis, but, possibly because he is involved with a new boyfriend, it is a while before he goes to see Seraphine. This time he really does bring about her critical success in the Paris art world. She makes some money, but Uhde still supports her to a considerable extent. That support is crimped by the Wall Street crash of 1929, which affects his wealth. His sponsorship is even more painfully crimped by Seraphine's mental condition, which begins to deteriorate drastically and swiftly. She is soon put in a mental hospital, where he visits and finds her in a large common room with others. He arranges private quarters for her, paying for them out of the sales of her paintings. This sadly unbalanced woman is thus paying for her own care.
Provost closes his film with a moment that is in essence true to the dark facts yet is lovely. At the end she is given a new hospital room opening on a field. She takes a small chair and starts upward to a lone tree standing on a rise. In a quite long shot we watch as she walks up the hill carrying that chair, then sits under the tree, the closest she can now come to that earlier moment in a tree. Our distance from her, the wholeness of this last shot--sky, hill, large tree, small woman--make it heartbreaking.
Ulrich Tukur as Uhde provides the contemptuous pride of a connoisseur burdened with perception when so many others are myopic. Uhde sees Seraphine as a naive artist (something like Le Douanier Rousseau, whose career he also influenced), and Tukur convinces us that Uhde is right. Moreau (unrelated to Jeanne Moreau), a veteran of theater, film, and television, is, oddly enough, best known in France as a comedienne. Here she has clearly seen Seraphine as the role of a lifetime, and she honors it with utter understanding. Seraphine made work that will last, and Moreau has meant to do the same.
The mystery we are left with is perennial. Talent. How did this drudging housemaid learn to paint--learn to want to paint? She loves God's world, but how did she find this means of expressing it? How did she acquire the will, the insistence? These questions are in addition to the one of her sheer ability. She might have loved nature just as much and painted badly. In the play/film Amadeus, Peter Shaffer raised the subject of divine injustice. Why, the serious Salieri broods, does he have less talent than the comparatively frisky Mozart? Here we are left wondering how, fundamentally, Seraphine happened. The disposition of talent is, as it often is, a bit eerie.
The Chinese documentary 24 City is about Chinese transition. The director Jia Zhang-ke, who won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with an earlier film, is following what has almost become a pattern. Several Chinese directors who have had success feel the need to say something in some way about the country that fostered them. Some of them slipped into prosey servility. But Jia's documentary is the work of a sophisticated artist.
The place is Chengdu, another of those Chinese cities with a multi-million population that crowd the country and that most of us have never heard of. A large factory that had manufactured aviation engines has closed. On the site a giant housing project is being built. Jia wants to counterpoint two themes: the idea of progress and the fact that the old factory meant something in personal terms to its workers. It was not only the place where they worked: it was the organizing center of their lives--in habits, relations, ambitions. Thus, in two contrasting ways, Jia is celebrating his country. Not only is it progressive, he implies, but the way it uses working people doesn't stunt them, it cultivates them as--yes, fellow skeptics--individuals.
China, as it wills, educates and, at least in some degree, empowers film- makers. The very first shots of the huge empty factory tell us that Jia is imaginative, perhaps an outright romantic. He makes us think of caverns, of immense enclosed space, of a place that harbored years of people's lives, of labor done here, of design, rewards, disappointments. Jia converts emptiness into history.
This transmutation is helped by interviews. (He punctuates all these interviews with an occasional blip of black screen--not for emphasis or time lapse, just as a sort of stylistic dash.) Five former workers in the plant speak of their pasts in and around it, and all of them are interesting as people holding forth their lives to us in trust. But there are three other interviews that have caused, rightly, some fuss. They are fictional and are spoken by actors, well known to the Chinese audience, who pretend to be workers like the others. One of them, Joan Chen, is somewhat familiar in the United States.
Jia says that he wanted to integrate documentary and fiction "because this seemed to me the best way of representing the last half-century of Chinese history." Though this is more valid than he can mean, his own reasons do not become clear. Further, Jia says that "history is always a blend of facts and imagination." This is often true when the historian is dealing with the past; but with the present, or the relative present, his statement seems a mere excuse to add unusual touches to his film. (Like those black blips.) For the interview with Chen, he even has her seated in front of a large mirror so that we get a symbolic double image--the actress and the person she is pretending to be. If that isn't enough, he also finds a way to include a clip from one of Chen's films.
Admittedly he has succeeded, with his gimmicks, in making 24 City unique. Without those gimmicks, however, his picture would have been even more distinguished. Still, China, so often ominous, is a dizzyingly interesting country--more than a country, a large chunk of the world--and Jia's documentary, despite its trickery, deploys its prodigious contradictions.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic at The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann