Whether she is vigorously scrubbing floors, gazing at a statue of the Virgin Mary or scrambling up a tree to admire the view, actress Yolande Moreau convincingly inhabits the very soul of Seraphine, a French scrubwoman who became a gifted self-taught painter and then lost her gift to madness.
Director Martin Provost, who also wrote the screenplay for "Seraphine," has achieved a seemingly impossible feat in this fascinating fictionalized version of the true story of early-20th century French painter Seraphine Louis, known as Seraphine de Senlis. He has found a way to depict on film, with respect and affection, religious ecstasy, artistic genius and the lonely netherworld they share with madness.
From the outset, Seraphine is a ridiculous figure, a dumpy woman in a shapeless dress, trudging about the countryside of Senlis near Paris, burdened with baskets of laundry, tunelessly singing songs of devotion. She hardly speaks, except to mutter.
But there is a sense of mystery about her, too, as she secretly collects odd substances in glass vials: some blood from the butcher shop, wax or oil from burning candles in church, what appears to be yellow mud from a streambed, random handfuls of weeds.
Only slowly does Provost reveal Seraphine's true passion: in her bare rented room, above the head of a landlord who is shrilly screaming about overdue rent, she pounds and mixes these substances into vibrant colors. And then she paints, often using her fingers, closeup views of apples, flowers and other plants of her world in lovely patterns.
Another fascinating aspect of this true story: Seraphine's talent was discovered by Wilhelm Uhde, a German art critic and collector while he was staying in Senlis and she worked for him as a maid. (Uhde was the first to buy Picasso's work and discovered the work of painter Le Douanier Rousseau.)
Seraphine quickly notices that Uhde seems sad; she urges him to find comfort from the birds and trees, as she does. When Uhde tells her he does not believe in God but believes that people feel sadness because, unlike animals, people have souls, she responds: "Animals are sad. If you take her calf from a cow, she cries."
The movie does a marvelous job depicting Uhde's shock at discovering Seraphine's talent and then the relationship between Seraphine and Uhde morphing from maid and master to protegee and mentor. Uhde fled France before World War I, then tracked down Seraphine after the war. Her paintings did not get real public attention until after her death.
Seraphine believed that guardian angels ordered her to paint. As her grip on reality loosens, her primitive painting style devolves into something more sinister.
The movie is beautiful to look at, thanks to the painterly approach of photography director Laurent Brunet. The approach of war, and the madness that will fall on Europe, is quickly dispatched with booming cannon and flashes of light.
The tragedy of Seraphine's decline is difficult to watch, but Provost finds a lovely way to wrap up her story.
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
STARRING: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Genevieve Mnich
DIRECTOR: Martin Provost
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
RATING: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for mature themes.
THE LOWDOWN: The true story of Seraphine de Senlis, a French cleaning woman who became a gifted painter and then descended into madness. In French with English subtitles.