Séraphine and Colour Contrast

Cinematographers often express a great amount of respect for the art of painting, and many consider painters a vital source of inspiration for their work. And rightfully so, painters have spent centuries studying all that is essential to our profession, namely composition and how light interacts with and defines a scene. This makes for an interesting meet when cinematographers are given the task of depicting painters on film. Cinematographer Laurent Brunet and production designer Thierry François were put to the test on Séraphine which recently premiered in cinemas in Norway, and their extremely strict use of colour has made a fascinating study on the topic. The following is my personal interpretation of the usage and effect of these decisions, and may contain some spoilers.

Séraphine de Senlis was not one of the superstars of painting, but her rise and fall makes a very interesting story. With no formal education, she was working as a housemaid when a German critic (Wilhelm Uhde) discovered her art by accident and eventually made her work famous. The filmmakers have obviously taken a cue from Séraphine’s art, which is very closely thematically linked to nature and predominantly in earthly and natural colours.

The opening of the film is almost entirely restricted to desaturated hues of green and blue. Depicting her with such a limited colour palette as she completes laborious tasks for the rich upper class paints an image of a tedious life where something is missing.

The combination of blue and green is perceived as distanced, soothing and calm, but ultimately dull. With the introduction of Wilhelm Uhde comes other colours from her paintings, bringing life to the images as she is encouraged to develop her talent further, but still she often remains a dark blue character in a blue-green environment as she struggles to make a living.

This very low colour contrast between Séraphine and her surroundings can be seen as a representation of her close relation to nature, which plays a vital role, as well as a contrast to her colourful paintings which are revealed later in the film, suggesting a great gap between the exterior appearance of her character and the rich inner fantasies expressed through her art (in other words, looks can deceive). The cool feel of these scenes is also contrasting the warmly candlelit scenes where Séraphine is painting. It’s a clever design that works on many levels throughout the film.

Uhde on the other hand is an esteemed character with resources and a glamorous life compared to Séraphine. He introduces touches of reds and yellows (complementary contrasts to green and blue) to the image, and friends dressed in bright blue, purple and orange, but the colours are still quite subdued. Even so, they create a contrast to the cool opening, and convey a feeling of optimism.

Things take a turn for the worse when Germany suddenly invade France, Uhde escapes, and Séraphin is left behind in a world that crashes into almost monochrome darkness. The second act of the film is a gloomy test of character for the aspiring painter who is given the task of realising her potential in a world that is falling apart.

The artist, of course, prevails, and as we reach a later highpoint in the film, the widest gamut of colours are displayed as Séraphine shows her work to friends and neighbours. There are also a number of scenes with Uhde in his green office, constantly with his red vest on, and a scene with his boyfriend outside his office, painting a red portrait of his sister dressed in red in green surroundings. These and other examples of the introduction of complementary contrasts in the second act is to me a visual representation of the high point in her life.

But Séraphine has a troubled psyche that can not find the fulfilment it seeks in art, and as economic crisis hits Europe and Uhde, she goes mad, and ultimately withdraws to her true object of passion; nature. The film ends the way it started, with an image of Séraphine dressed in blue, sitting in a chair on the green grass under a green tree and the blue skies — fade to blue. A visual journey in colour is complete, and an amazing achievement in production design and cinematography.

The film exhibits a very subtle use of colour and an impressive amount of detailed set and costume design, but what’s most interesting is how effectively these ingredients have been used to add layers of information to the physical story as it is played out between the actors. This is maybe the most admirable aspect of the film from my point of view. As a cinematographer you always struggle to use the visual language to add to the story, but there’s a fine line between enhancing and getting in the way of the performance. The extra dimension added when the filmmakers succeed is in my opinion often the difference between a really good and a great movie.

/Film recently wrote an interesting story on the orange/blue contrast in movie posters, which they point out is a very common complementary colour contrast used in film. If you find this topic interesting, I recommend watching Séraphine, if only just as a further experiment on how colours can be used to define images, and what the effect is. As an interesting sidenote, Séraphine was shot on Fuji film and finished photochemically, no digital process involved. Will we ever see (or is there maybe already?) a film about a painter shot digitally?

Have you seen the film? What do you think? I’d love to hear some comments on how the cinematography and production design worked for you, and how you interpret the different elements.