The late afternoon sunlight streamed through the high, vertical, arched windows of the Crystal Gallery Café of the Detroit Film Theatre. About 30-40 people had gathered to participate in a discussion led by Wayne State University professor Karen McDevitt about a powerful new French film that they had just watched in the DFT auditorium on July 12, 2009. The ornate vaulted ceilings enhanced the feeling of understanding that spread throughout the café as the discussion proceeded.
In Séraphine, the title character used art in a spontaneous, natural manner to deal with her struggles and yearnings. She was “a self-taught artist,” observed Karen. It was part self-therapy, part religious expression for a middle-aged woman who mainly earned her living as a cleaning lady. She would mix her paints from different substances, and would sing to her angels as she worked. Her work took the form of patterns of natural objects (like fruits and leaves), rather than particular things like people or places.
“She was devoted to the higher power of art,” noted Karen, who made other insightful points about the film that helped me (and I’m sure many others) appreciate it more. Karen also touched on the spiritual theme when she noted that the main character “spends her life cleaning up after other people,” prompting one audience member to call Séraphine a “Christ-like figure.”
Séraphine de Senlis ends up in a mental institution, because of some antisocial behavior. A debate arose in the audience about the possible effects of modern medication on Séraphine. One woman said that this medication might have helped her continue her art, rather than end up hospitalized. Another woman countered that such medication might have stabilized her emotions to the point where she lost her inner stress to create art.
Karen mentioned several different cinematic techniques that added to the depth and tone of the film. The director, Martin Provost, “intentionally directs it to make it a simple story about a simple woman.” The camerawork used natural light to create a “lingering effect.” The editing included many fade-ins and fade-outs, to “let the structure unfold, as we become part of the story.” In this “character-driven” movie, “everything is about detail,” noted Karen.
Séraphine was an award-winning film in France and had “tremendous popular appeal” in France. But Karen also noted that her film students at Wayne State would have a hard time enjoying the movie, because of the lack of dramatic movement. And Hollywood films usually don’t feature a middle-aged woman as the star.
The discussion in the Crystal Gallery Café was part of a series of Talking Points that the DFT has been using to add value to their already superb film presentations. Film Prologues before movies let guest speakers talk to a large audience for a half hour, using screen images to emphasize and add to their main points. After-Film Discussions, like the one held for Séraphine, are a more intimate gathering, letting patrons ask more questions and also enjoy a beverage or snack from the café.
Séraphine is part of the DFT’s third straight year of summer programming. This year’s schedule got off to a fun start with a weekend of silent comedies on June 12-14 that helped patrons forget the current economic woes (thanks to the 50-cent admission price). These Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times, City Lights) and Buster Keaton (Seven Chances, Sherlock Jr.) classics also helped people get over the Detroit Red Wings’ Stanley Cup championship loss on June 12. A strong variety of foreign language and documentary films continues at the DFT until August 9.
As I walked towards the DFT on this perfect summer day, I thought about the many cold, slushy winter days that I have endured on my visits to the DFT. In the auditorium, Friends of Detroit Film Theatre Chair Margaret Thomas thanked everyone for spending some time inside on a nice day to be outside. “You won’t miss anything because at 4 o’clock, the beautiful weather will still be there, after you’ve seen this beautiful film,” she joked.
Before Séraphine, some powerful classical music echoed throughout the auditorium, helping visitors prepare for the intense emotions of the movie. For me, the music’s impact was made stronger by its contrast with the warm, sentimental Barton theater organ music that I had enjoyed at the Redford Theatre the day before during a double bill of Charlie Chan mysteries. Once again, the enjoyment of one Detroit Movie Palace helped enhance my experience at another one.
And the third Detroit Movie Palace, the Michigan Theater, will soon be screening Séraphine, giving Ann Arbor area movie lovers the chance to enjoy and appreciate, as Karen McDevitt called it, “a work of art about a work of art.”
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.