In writer/director Martin Provost’s patiently restrained biopic about the self-trained French painter Seraphine Louis, the audience is brought increasingly closer into the heart and mind of a genius whose turbulent inner life eventually envelops her conscious being. Yolande Moreau gives an earthy and compelling performance, measured by her character’s direct connection to the natural world around her.
The film’s achievement lies in connecting Seraphine’s 1920s-era working-class life, from freelance house maid to a successful artist, under the inestimable patronage of Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German art critic and collector who champions Seraphine for her scintillating artistic ability. That the filmmaker does so while delicately sketching in the underlying influences of World War I and the Great Depression adds to the film’s overall effect as a fully formed narrative of immense social breadth and artistic fulfillment.
The 48-year-old Seraphine goes about her daily tasks of mopping floors and making wheelbarrow deliveries to clients that try to cheat her, with the singular purpose of collecting the materials she needs to construct colors for her self-made paints later in the evening. The blood of cow’s livers will be ground up with mortar and pestle into red paint.
In public she carries herself with a selfish innocence that functions as an unpretentious defense mechanism against snarky shop owners and locals that insult her as a pathetic kook.
Late at night, Seraphine paints by candlelight in her tiny apartment, where she must constantly rush past the landlord who troubles her for past due rent. Accompanying herself with religious hymns that she sings in full voice, Seraphine paints with a rapturous sense of the sublime, all the while maintaining a sober awareness of her immediate artistic goals that leave her utterly depleted by morning.
Yolande Moreau uses her substantial physical bearing to greet her character’s al fresco surroundings. When she swims nude in a river, Moreau’s ample body consumes the natural world around her like a planet caught in an inevitable orbit. At once dignified and gutsy, the actress represents an artist free of artifice.
One of Seraphine’s housekeeping clients is Wilhelm Uhde, a wealthy, gay avant-garde art collector — he discovered Picasso and Le Douanier Rousseau — vacationing from Paris in Senlis with his sister. Even before Uhde haphazardly discovers one of Seraphine’s paintings during a comical dinner party with some local art snobs, he and Seraphine share a kindred appreciation for each other that is liberated by Uhde’s realization of his cleaning lady’s fountain of talent that he labels as “modern primitive.”
Unable, or unwilling, to realize the implications of Uhde’s diverted romantic perspective, Seraphine allows herself to be passionately motivated by him in her art. However, Uhde’s unqualified patronage is cut short when suspicious locals recognize his German heritage and chase him out of town. It isn’t until years later, after the end of World War I, that Uhde passes through Senlis again and dares to visit Seraphine’s apartment in the distant hope that she might still be alive and painting.
For a brief period, under Uhde’s generous financial support, Seraphine is able to live beyond her means. She begins to work on much larger canvases and displays an abandon with color that transforms her daily efforts into a prolific spree of chiaroscuro inspiration. The lush paintings are transfixing, and the director brings to light the magic of their complexity in creative ways that reward the viewer with a full appreciation for works of art that now hang in world-class museums.
Seraphine de Senlis — she renamed herself to reflect her hometown — was an artist of tremendous skill and insight who might have lived a more fully realized artistic life had not the Great Depression obliterated a fully realized lifestyle that the artist embraced with a voracious appetite when she had the opportunity. While Seraphine was able to rise above provincial class restrictions to create her art, the global economic collapse of the Great Depression proved too daunting an obstacle for such an artistic soul tethered to the earth by trees, fruits, flowers and religious inspiration. Grade: B-plus