Imagine you’re a frumpy French house cleaner who stays up all night conjuring hallucinatory paintings of fruits and flowers because your guardian angel instructed you to do so. And that, seemingly by divine intervention, your work is discovered by a prominent art critic who promises to make you rich and famous. Then imagine how betrayed you’d feel if both your patron and your heavenly advisor appeared to have misled you. No Paris exhibition. No adoring crowds. No fancy automobile. It might be enough to drive you mad. For Séraphine Louis (1864-1942), it was.
Of course, she was pretty out there in the first place. As played by Yolande Moreau, Séraphine is one of the more colorful personalities in the pastoral village of Senlis. She talks to trees, bathes nude in the river, uses chicken blood to mix her own red pigment and sings songs to the Virgin Mary as she paints. Most of the time, though, she labors. Director Martin Provost and his co-writer, Marc Abdelnour, do a very clever thing: They show their subject scrubbing floors, washing linens and doing laundry for her stern employer for at least a half hour before showing us one of her creations.
Knowing Séraphine only as this bulky, semi-mute beast of burden, we are as astonished by the revelation of her gift as is the tenant whose floors she’s been scrubbing. Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) was a famous and influential German critic and gallery owner.
He’d come to Senlis to write a series of articles on Picasso, whom he was among the first to champion, along with Braque. Uhde, who discovered Henri Rousseau, recognizes instantly that Séraphine is a “modern primitive” genius and assures her they will do great things together if she continues to develop her talent. To Séraphine, the chance encounter is more than just a promising career opportunity; it’s a validation of her faith.
Uhde goes on the lam when German forces invade the town, while Séraphine is so consumed by her work she seems scarcely to notice the First World War. The film offers a fascinating study of the subtle changes in her psychology in the wake of her discovery. Anticipating one-woman shows in world capitals, celebrity and riches, Séraphine amasses a body of wildly original work and begins to comport herself with an incongruous grandeur. When the war ends and a decade passes with no sign of Uhde, she’s unfazed. Time doesn’t seem to exist for her.
Fate plays yet another cruel trick on the artist, and it’s the one that pushes her over the edge. When Uhde finally returns, he is suitably impressed by the progress she’s made. Her long-promised exhibition is once again postponed indefinitely, however, by the crash on Wall Street. It will be some time, Séraphine is informed, before people resume spending big money on paintings. After a lifetime of back-breaking work and a close encounter with success, the disappointment is more than she can bear, and she gradually loses her grip on reality.
Séraphine is a beautifully shot, superbly acted, brilliantly directed tale of great art and bad timing. The winner of seven César Awards — France’s version of the Oscar — it ranks among the most insightful movies ever made about the connection between the creative process and madness. Moreau’s performance offers a master class in acting without ever resorting to showiness. Tukur also creates a compelling character, but the actress’ most impressive costars are the extraordinary compositions of Séraphine Louis. The filmmakers appear to have gained access to the originals, and the glimpses the movie offers of these paintings are worth the price of admission. They are as otherworldly and mysterious as the mind that imagined them.