When we first meet Seraphine de Senlis, it’s hard not to feel confused. This most ordinary of women, this overweight housekeeper trudging heavily through cobblestone streets in a shapeless black dress, she could not possibly be the subject of a major French motion picture, let alone one that won seven Cesars, including best film, best screenplay, best cinematography and best actress for star Yolande Moreau. There must be some kind of mistake.
There is no mistake. What makes “Seraphine,” directed and co-written by Martin Provost, so exceptional is that it neither condescends to nor romanticizes its subject.
Rather, powered by a performance of a lifetime by Belgium-born actress Moreau, it allows us to meet this singular person on her own terms. It permits us to see how ordinary life, extraordinary artistic ability and eccentric mental states can and do exist in the same person.
Seraphine de Senlis was very much a real person, a village cleaning woman who turned out to be a Primitive artist possessed of a powerful talent. One of the satisfactions of watching her moving journey unfold for two decades, starting in 1914, is that, like her art, it refuses to capitulate to the ordinary and the expected.
Rather, as directed by Provost, “Seraphine” is ordered by its own quiet rhythms, by its decision to tell this moving, empathetic story simply and gradually. Confident of the quality of its narrative, this is a film that refuses to be rushed, refuses to reveal itself and its characters until the proper moment.
A long time is spent with Seraphine and her daily routines in the town of Senlis before we have any notion of her as an artist. Stolid and seemingly simple, Seraphine is treated like a piece of furniture by the people she works for, but in her private moments we sense a yearning in her spirit, an unspoken, almost pagan passion for nature in all its manifestations.
When we do see her paintings of flowers and trees, we come to understand that making art is a holy act for Seraphine.
She paints because of a kind of spiritual compulsion, as if she were a devout member of a religion with but a single worshiper. Art is not a choice or an option, but a brutal necessity.
It’s hard to convey how subtly yet completely actress Moreau brings this unexpectedly complex woman to our attention. Her Seraphine can seem both indifferent and passionate, timid and bossy, a fierce and stubborn force to be reckoned with who lights up the screen with a delicate half-smile. What we are watching finally is not a performance but a life.
That life would likely have remained hidden to history if William Uhde, a German art critic based in Paris, had not come down to Senlis for some time away from the city. An early supporter and collector of Picasso and the discoverer and promoter of Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau, Uhde chances on Seraphine’s work, which people in Senlis either don’t know about or think of as a joke, and is immediately flabbergasted.
A fussy aesthete finely played by Ulrich Tukur (memorable as an East German official in “The Lives of Others”), Uhde has so little in common with Seraphine’s clumsy housekeeper that their interaction could almost be the basis for a farce.
Instead what we get is a fascinating and inevitably tricky relationship between obsessive people who are united only by their zeal for Seraphine’s art.
Both Uhde and the artist have hidden corners to their lives, secrets as well as failings that make their interaction an intricate and at times difficult one.
“Seraphine” is no smooth “Somebody Up There Likes Me” story but an examination, both unsettling and deeply touching, of the sources of creativity, the vagaries of renown and the complexities of relationships. The long French tradition of thoughtful, intelligent films of quality for adults is alive and well here, and that is reason to rejoice.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 2 hours, and 5 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark, West Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Regency South Coast Village, Costa Mesa