By Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Mixing her paints with candle wax and singing to herself like a sorceress devising a transformative brew, Séraphine Louis was a servant who spent her long days washing linens, scrubbing floors. And when her hard work was done, she’d toddle back to her tiny apartment in a French village and create magic with brush and board: swirling, vibrant paintings of flowers and trees, almost psychedelic in their intensity, their suggestion of spiritual life.
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Martin Provost’s transcendently beautiful portrait of this briefly celebrated figure in the “modern primitive” school that included Henri Rousseau, is the rare movie that manages to convey the inner soul of an artist. Set in the years just before the First World War and then on into the late 1930s, the film belongs to Yolande Moreau, an actress with wide, watchful eyes and an ability to turn a smile into a gesture of celestial possession.
Nowadays, Séraphine Louis, later known as Séraphine de Senlis (the town, north of Paris, where she lived), would be called an outsider artist — untrained, eccentric, working in a style and method without pretense or influence. Back in the time between the wars, she was viewed as just a stooped-over woman who could be found wandering in the woods, muttering to the trees, when she wasn’t busy cooking and cleaning.
Her artwork was considered clumsy and amateurish until an esteemed critic, the German Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), was struck by her work. Under Udhe’s encouragement and patronage, Séraphine’s paintings blossomed.
Moreau won the French equivalent of the Oscar for her work here, and it’s much deserved. (Seraphine won the best-picture prize, too.) The character’s fleeting success in the art world, her moody naivete and childlike reverence for the natural and religious worlds — and her fall into isolation and psychosis — is conveyed with such tenderness and totality that it’s almost heartbreaking to behold.
Cast: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur.
Director: Martin Provost.
Screenwriters: Marc Abdelnour, Martnn Provost.
Producers: Milena Poylo, Gilles Sacuto.
Running time: 125 minutes. Playing in Miami-Dade only: Cosford.