As French na?ve painter Séraphine Louis, Yolande Moreau dominates Martin Provost's Séraphine like Séraphine's "secret red" color dominates her emotionally pure canvases splashed with flowers and fruits.
Moreau is by turns frumpy, impish, poetic and beatific in her portrayal of the innocent, doomed artist. The actress soaks in the beauty of Provost's mannered compositions, and her expressions of unmediated rapture at the sublime countryside around her infuses the film with the religious ecstasy of pure artistic creation. Séraphine advises a character in the film, "When I feel bad I go for a walk in the country and I touch the trees and I talk to the birds, the flowers, the insects... and I feel better." As Séraphine, Moreau makes a strong case for modern day pantheism as a cure for all our daily woes.
And it almost cures the film. Provost's film charts the discovery of Séraphine in the small French town of Senlis in 1914 by the famed German art collector and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), who is spending some time away from Paris and staying at a country retreat where Séraphine is his housekeeper and cook.
Séraphine is first seen trudging through the woods before dawn, the moon shining through cracked branches of the trees, beginning a long day of backbreaking domestic labor, scrubbing floors, preparing meals, cleaning rooms, and taking in laundry. Provost lets the reality of Séraphine as an artist take hold gradually as she goes about her daily tasks, with hints that Séraphine is more than a domestic servant dropped into the mix like pigments. She furtively hides soil in her apron, saves blood from a butcher in a hidden bottle, pours the wax remains of church candles into a container. And it is a good twenty minutes into the film until it is finally revealed that Séraphine is squirreling away all these ingredients in order to concoct homegrown paint for her canvases. Her compulsions tag her as either an artist or a madwoman. In her case, it is a bit of both.
Uhde discovers one of Séraphine's canvases at a pompous dinner party of artistic snobs where table conversation consists of mockery for impressionist paintings ("lunatics who paint like six-year olds"). Uhde vehemently objects to the tenor or the dinner conversation and quickly snatches up Séraphine's completed paintings and promising her artistic fame as Séraphine scrubs the floor around him. But then World War I intervenes and the German Uhde has to make a quick escape from a rabid anti-German France. But returning to France in 1927, Uhde searches out Séraphine and bankrolls her as her patron. Séraphine finally experiences some modicum of artistic acceptance and fame until the Depression hits and she lapses into dementia.
As Stephen Sondheim points out in Sunday in the Park with George, "a painter paints," and that is what Séraphine has to do. She works like a dog but ekes out whatever time she has left from her daily drudgery and paints. And Provost certainly captures this necessity of creative expression by depicting it as an obsession or a disease, locking in on choker close-ups of Séraphine in the darkness or her room, banging away and preparing paint or smudging the colors onto her canvas with her fingers. But the acting helps and Moreau's intensity burns through the bleak night world of Séraphine's creativity.
Moreau also has to burn through Provost's well-heeled mannerism. Very much a shiny example of the old-fashioned, well-made type of French film that the New Wave filmmakers disparaged in the late 1950s, Provost's compositions are all clean, studied, and beautiful. Moreau, in her dowdy blue hat and shawl, galumphs through these quality landscapes like Chaplin might have done if he were in a post-WWII George Stevens movie. And thank God for that.
Moreau's presence acts as an antidote to all the pretension that surrounds her and she works overtime to surmount Provost's French Academy arrangements. The real life Séraphine's paintings were very much like Moreau's performance here -- cries of passion and intensity in a world of careful, unemotional perfectionism.
If the French town of Senlis really looks like Provost's beautiful and painterly world as he depicts it in Séraphine, no wonder Séraphine Louis went nuts.
Try the burnt umber.