A Heroine's Madness Turns To Art

'Seraphine' Traces Painter's Path To Creativity **** ( 4 Stars)

July 31, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

The euphoria, lunacy and transformative intensity of art receive passionate, perhaps immortal treatment in Seraphine, Martin Provost's quietly magical and urgently moving film.

It dominated the last Cesar awards (the French Oscars), including wins for best picture, script and actress (Yolande Moreau). How Provost lost the directing prize is beyond me, since the film is a triumph of empathy and vision.

It makes a measured yet enthralling drama from the life-struggle of Seraphine Louis, an inarticulate and eccentric cleaning woman from the provincial town of Senlis, to master vast inner turmoil and an inspiration-driven, go-for-broke style of painting akin to Vincent van Gogh's.

The movie spans her life from the eve of World War I, when German art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) first discovered Seraphine, to her final years in a mental hospital, where he spent her earnings on a decent room with access to her one abiding pleasure: the outdoors.

These two characters provide the movie with an enigmatic, touching core. The aesthete boasts a keen nose for authentic accomplishment - he praised and collected Picasso and "outsider art" before Picasso became a brand name and outsider art an accepted term. He recognizes that Seraphine has developed an artistic temperament from necessity - and she senses that he believes in her. Even though she mistrusts "smart" people and often misunderstands him, she can read his moods like an emotional psychic.

It's fitting that Seraphine enters the Charles the day after the last showing of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Gaudi. Seraphine, the devout French peasant, like Antonio Gaudi, the devout Catalan architect, dedicated herself to translating what she saw as the beauty and joy of God's universe into an idiosyncratic art so vibrant that colors and curves come alive.

Gaudi used casts of live animals and models for the sacred statues adorning his mammoth cathedral at Barcelona; Serpahine mixes her own paints with ingredients such as chicken blood and votive candles.

Happily, Provost is an honest-to-god moviemaker rather than a hagiographer or frustrated art critic. He sets up the film as a mystery that promises to answer not the classic question of "whodunit?" but what is she doing and why is she doing it? Provost respects the unknowable essence of creation. And the distance he keeps from his heroine magnifies our connection to her art by making us hyper-alert to any clues she drops about her creative imagination. Because of Provost's keen observations and Moreau's performance, as warm and worn and eloquently lumpy as an aging couch, we experience this woman's immersion in her material and her craft.

She's inspiring and sometimes worrisome or funny as she gathers ingredients from a stream or a hedge, at night or during a morning stroll, then locks herself up in her rented room with a sign saying she's at work. Seraphine labors to extol the glory of the Virgin Mary and the divine beauty she sees at the heart of nature. But Provost and Moreau suggest that she does wish that her art would be her means of communication with other people - and even be a conduit for angels from on high to come to Earth to deliver mankind's redemption.

After she achieves some success, she can't handle her ambition for her art - and she can't stem the toll her increasingly feverish visions take on her rational mind.

Moreau's victory as a performer is that we never simply pity her even after she breaks our hearts and succumbs to madness. Her vitality survives in the art she leaves behind and in the vision Provost bequeaths to us of a soul still capable of ecstasy. The movie has a painterly vision of its own, but it wisely doesn't compete with Seraphine's.

It's more temperate and realistic, yet it also rises to a sort of matter-of-fact surrealism thanks to Serpahine's vitality. At one point Uhde asks for tea and instead she gives him her own special "energy wine." Seraphine is no tepid art thing. It works on your system like an energy wine.


(Music Box Films) Starring Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur. Directed by Martin Provost. Unrated. Time 123 minutes. In French, with English subtitles.

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