This is a French film about self esteem, sanity, and being stuck in a rut. Seraphine is a poverty-stricken cleaning lady, somewhere in her 40s/50s, who appears to go through life on a very unenjoyable plateau of habituation (I would like to say the French word, habitude, here because there is a point in the film when she focuses on that particular word, but I can’t use it in the prior sentence correctly). She scrubs floors, absorbs insults from everyone, and is generally out of place, as in a hair in a customer’s soup—that is, gotten rid of quickly so no one will ever know it was there in the first place. She dresses in black or dark blue, her hair is falling out of her loosely tied top-bun into her eyes, and her expression rarely, if ever, changes beyond a blank, doe-eyed stare. Only in her actions does she appear to be taking any pleasure in life: climbing a tree, bathing naked in a river, or making homemade paint out of blood from a cow’s liver, and even then the pleasure is muted.
But underneath her subdued exterior is some sort of artistic genius. She is a painter, though she must work very hard to earn the money to buy the supplies to then make her paints. But her vision, as told through her paintings, is a colorful, voluptuous nature—plants with so many leaves it’s impossible for there to be any realistic quality to the object in the painting because the object itself has multiplied upon itself in a way that overwhelms the viewer with its insensibility. Well, that’s how I see them at least.
Turns out there is a real Seraphine, known as Seraphine de Senlis, upon which this film is based. They are her paintings; it is her life the film represents. And what the film tells me is that a sense of self and place can be maintained by habituation, even in the midst of the most awful circumstances, but when a door to the outside world opens up, is shut, opens up again, and is shut again (so she thinks), then an already fragile sanity hangs in the balance.
This is what happened to Seraphine: she managed to live her cleaning-lady/closet-artist existence by accepting the habits of daily life without ever anticipating relief, but when a spectacularly unimaginable escape was presented to her (having a benefactor, the possibility of showing her art in Paris, etc.), and the ECONOMY (the US stock market crash of 1929) caused a ripple effect all the way out in the outskirts of her already meager living, she could no longer fathom a return to a one-room, laundry-washing existence. I guess she cracked. The divine hand of the guardian angel who guided her art told her to give away her things, and dressed in a virginal wedding gown of denied conjugal love, she walked out of a life of art and creativity and into a life of white walls, straight jackets, and tears.
I suppose we should all take away from the story of Seraphine, a will to practice and perfect our own creativity in whatever outlets we are naturally geared toward; despite economics or joblessness or even employment, happiness is being able to reconcile our self within our self.
The image I’m left with from this film is Seraphine dressed up in her white silk and taffeta wedding gown, heading for the marriage of her soul to god, I suppose—the first time she’s worn anything that wasn’t black or dark blue—and it’s then that she’s picked up by the police because of her behavior; stripped down to her very core, that part of herself that was raw and pure and mentally unstable, she is no longer protected by the dark exterior of her cleaning clothes and her habitude, and she is hauled in to spend the rest of her days in an asylum with white walls that mock the very idea of the painter’s canvas. Sad.