Martin Provost discusses 'SÃ©raphine'
A former screen and stage actor and member of the Comédie Française, Martin Provost wrote plays and novels before directing ‘Séraphine’. He also completed two shorts before his first feature, 'Tortilla y Cinéma', in 1997. 'Le Ventre de Juliette' followed in 1992, but 'Séraphine', his film on the artist Séraphine de Senlis, has proved his public and critical breakthrough, scooping seven awards at the Césars – including Best Film and Best Actress for Yolande Moreau
Few people in Britain will have heard of Séraphine de Senlis before seeing this film, but is her story well known in France?
‘Not at all. A friend of mine who works in radio somehow got to know about Séraphine and told me that it would be an ideal subject. I had a look online and there wasn’t much to be found, just the basic outline of a cleaning woman who had a vision of a guardian angel in the cathedral and turned to painting at the age of 40. Very interesting, and enough to start us researching, which is how we came across the figure of Wilhelm Uhde, a critic and curator who’s a tremendously important figure in twentieth-century art but who, like Séraphine, really hadn’t had the recognition he deserves.’
Film biographies are essentially a process of selection: what was your guiding principle?
‘I asked myself whether I treated Séraphine’s life from A to Z as a sort of biographer, or whether I tackled it from the point of view of what I actually had to say about her life. The latter approach worked for me, because I didn’t want to take a miserabilist approach to her character. What was important to me was her relationship to creation.’
In what sense?
‘This was a time when women didn’t even have the vote, but here was this ordinary person who succeeded in creating an artistic life for herself, based on her own way of working, which the people around her thought was totally mad. But the work is there, it endures and we’re still talking about it. That’s what I wanted to say.’
The audience has to believe this is a peasant woman from a hundred years ago, so how did you work with Yolande Moreau to shape her performance?
‘We had a year to prepare before the shooting and we both live in the same part of the Île-de-France where the film was shot, so I’d tell her, “I’ve found a tree!” and we’d find ourselves climbing over fences and tramping through cowshit… Yolande took painting lessons, and even learned to sing in Latin, but when it came to the shoot, the key was to capture the sense of a woman who lived each day with God. Yolande was concerned because she says she doesn’t really have a mystic side, but she’d go into a corner and repeat “Séraphine, I’m with you, I’m with you,” then come back and do the scenes. Even the crew were dumbstruck – it was like this woman just came to life in front of the camera.’
Tricky, though, surely, to capture Séraphine’s spirituality without leaving the audience feeling excluded?
‘Of course. The minute you signal to the audience that she’s mad, you’re judging her. Equally, I didn’t want to give the impression, “See, she’s right”, which would have been equally simplistic. For me it’s a form of respect not to emphasise or underline, but to plant the seeds of uncertainty. Respect not only for Séraphine, but for the viewers who themselves may be non-believers. The work on the film was really about pitching the story so that everything was possible.’
Were there any key films you looked at which helped you find that tone?
‘Yes. Peter Watkins’s “Edvard Munch”. That’s a film I’ve loved ever since it came out, because it really speaks about painting, and about the destiny of an artist. Maurice Pialat’s “Van Gogh”, too, of course, and François Truffaut’s “Story of Adele H” for its way with light and its creation of the period.’
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