"Earthy." "Sensuous." The overworked adjectives of the critic's palette are pressed into emergency duty, required to describe the Cesar-winning French drama "Seraphine," in L.A. theaters Friday, and Yolande Moreau's performance as a cleaning lady with a secret life as a painter of, well, earthy and sensuous natural life.
A biopic of Seraphine de Senlis, concentrating on her years of thwarted artistic ambition and the belated discovery of her work, Martin Provost's film lives and dies with Moreau, who conveys the painter's undimmed spirit with weary grace. Having the area known as "The Valley of the Impressionist Painters" as your backyard, one might imagine, would assist in the process of re-creating the interior life of one of the great untutored artists of the early 20th century.
Neighbors in the Vexin region, about one hour north of Paris, Moreau and Provost had the opportunity to explore the beauty of their natural surroundings as a prelude to collaboration.
"We took lots of walks in the countryside that Martin liked very much and that he wanted to see in the film," says Moreau, whose preparation for the role's challenging blend of the spiritual and the physical ranged far afield. "I took some painting training with a teacher in order to be familiar [with the technique] and know how to handle things. Another thing was learning the Gregorian chants. I went to see the priest of my parish, where I live in the countryside, and he taught me those psalms in Latin."
Provost credits their proximity with assisting in solidifying a bond between actor and director. "The fact that we live in the same area, Yolande and I, created opportunities to build links and connections and to work very well together before we started making the film."
Moreau, 56, with a fluting voice and a notable resemblance to a trimmer, gentler Roseanne Barr, has approached success in roundabout fashion. Born in Brussels, Moreau studied theater as a youngster and the art of clowning as an adult. Putting her training to good use, Moreau toured the world in the 1980s with her one-woman show, "A Dirty Business of Sex and Crime," which delicately combined comedy and drama, cajoling audiences into laughing at what might, in other circumstances, be horrific. Making use of elaborate masks, makeup and wordplay, Moreau presented a highly personal meditation on love and mortality dressed up as a comic thriller. There is a gun and murder, but the real crimes are all emotional ones.
After her loop through Europe and North America, Moreau joined the Jerome Deschamps theatrical troupe, remaining a member for 12 years. During that time, Moreau was given her first onscreen experience, including a small role in Agnes Varda's 1985 film "Vagabond." The actress went on to play small roles in numerous French films, including "Germinal" and "Amelie."
After leaving Deschamps, Moreau set to work on a script that made use of her experiences as a nomadic actor. Employing bits and pieces of "A Dirty Business" along with memories of her time spent playing the auditoriums, concert halls and senior-citizen centers of rural France, she emerged with "When the Sea Rises," an unexpectedly tender romance that struck a chord with audiences. Moreau's middle-aged, crumpled performer, at her best on stage and at sea off of it, unexpectedly finds love with a free-spirited younger man who briefly sets her world askew. "I used it as a platform," Moreau says, "to talk about a woman getting older. This film was putting in parallel the fact that in the theater, we attempt to portray life, while in life we have to manage to live using our dreams." Moreau won a Cesar for best actress, and a star was born.
Meanwhile, a friend had introduced Provost to the story of Seraphine de Senlis. Researching Seraphine's life, Provost discovered the unusual relationship that flowered between the artist and German art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, who had served as Seraphine's first champion. Meeting Tina Verney, founder of Paris' Musee Maillol, where Seraphine's work had first been exhibited, and who had purchased Uhde's collection, solidified his growing sense that there was a film to be made here.
"I knew at the time that I wanted to construct the film around the meeting between Wilhelm Uhde and Seraphine," remembers Provost, "and immediately Yolande's image came to mind."
"Seraphine" balances on the fulcrum of the artist's relationship with Uhde (played by Ulrich Tukur). Before his arrival, she is a physical laborer, scrubbing floors and polishing furniture; after, she is granted a moment of respite from the ceaseless maelstrom of cleaning to work at her paintings of enormous, leafy trees and trembling flowers.
"I think that Seraphine, in the beginning of her life, experienced great suffering, and [the paintings] are a way to process all her suffering," Moreau speculates.
Employing a minimum of speech ("we both had the desire to erase practically all the dialogue," Moreau says), Seraphine is like a silent-film heroine, her agonies and ecstasies conveyed with her eyes, her meaty, blood-engorged hands, and the palpable joy she takes in nature's ineffable bounty. In one striking moment, Seraphine walks over to a tree, hugging its trunk and pressing her cheek against the bark. It is nature, not other people, that awakens her deepest sympathies.
Moreau's performance in "Seraphine," like her turn in "When the Sea Rises," is a triumph of physicality (for which she won her second Cesar). The roles share a pleasure in the act of creation that the remainder of their dour, mirthless existences deny them. Their joy comes from accessing untapped resources of creativity, where sadness begets pleasure, which begets yet more sadness.
Sometimes, it takes a clown to make us cry, and Moreau's training as a comedian grants her the flexibility of appearing ridiculous without fear of ridicule "I love to make people laugh," Moreau says of her own work, "but I love to make people laugh with things that have some tragedy in it."