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SERAPHINE: An interview with director, Martin Provost


French painter, Seraphine de Senlis, did not know much success while she was alive from 1864 to 1942. She would spend her days cleaning houses for very little money that would always sooner be spent on art supplies instead of food. She would paint in what is known as the naïve style, which essentially mirrored her childlike demeanor. She was a simple woman with simple needs and is now the subject of a complex film by director, Martin Provost, called simply, SERAPHINE.

Provost had originally heard of Seraphine through a colleague who thought her story would intrigue him. Her story did but her work, at first, did not. It was not until he saw her work in person that he understood the connection between the paintings and the painter. “It is a real paradox,” Provost told me when we met at the Toronto International Film Festival, where SERAPHINE was seen by North American audiences for the first time. “Her work would not ordinarily interest me but when I sat alone in a room with them, something happened to me. I could feel the person behind the paintings.” She would inspire him to be as dedicated to his work as she was to hers.


Given her mental health issues, Seraphine was an inherently marginalized voice. It is fitting then that she would be discovered by a similarly marginalized voice, that of homosexual art collector, Willhelm Uhde. She is drawn to him while he is drawn to her work. Their relationship, as portrayed in the film, is unique; a strong, passionate kinship grows between them but it is not one that could ever go the direction it feels it naturally should. “I constructed the screenplay as though they had a romantic relationship when clearly, it was not one of love or sexuality,” Provost describes. The delicacy of their relationship’s balance is achieved by striking and stark performances from leads, Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukor.

SERAPHINE has an unexpected universal appeal. This is a woman who slaved for days to make pennies in order to support her art, her passion. The artist’s plight, the true artist’s plight that is, no matter how clichéd it might be even today, is placing priority and emphasis on the work above all else. “We may be in a period of abundance but the essential is missing,” says Provost of our increasingly art-less world. Perhaps Seraphine’s more naïve approach is what this world now desperately needs.

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