(No longer in theaters)
Gilles Sacuto, Milena Poylo
Music Box Films
Jun 5, 2009
As the early twentieth century “naïve” or “modern primitive” painter Seráphine de Senlis in Martin Provost’s sublime drama Seráphine, Yolande Moreau is magically transparent yet utterly mysterious. What’s in her head? You don’t know—but you almost know, from glimmers in her face and from the heightened textures of the French countryside through which she toddles in a state of rapture. A plain, ruddy woman of indeterminate age, Seráphine scrubs floors and washes linens and is, in her mute drudgery, exaggeratedly self-effacing. But when she’s not working, she’s joyfully perched on tree branches or in her dark little apartment painting still lifes that suggest motion—sunflowers imbued with a radiant energy. You might think you have her pegged when she invokes the self-abnegating Saint Thérèse, but Seráphine turns out to be anything but egoless. When the German critic and art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) effuses over her work and begins to sell her paintings to Parisians, she accepts the prospect of wealth and celebrity with unnerving alacrity. The voices in her head have predicted it, after all.
Seráphine is one of the most evocative films about an artist I’ve ever seen—and in its treatment of madness one of the least condescending. Seráphine sings when she paints or moves in her flat-topped hat through the rolling green fields, and Moreau’s voice is not in any recognizable key—it’s barely musical. Yet it’s revelatory: an imperfect translation of the inner life that finds its perfect translation in painting. Provost fades to black after many scenes, his rhythms weighty without being ponderous, the ideal state in which to enter the movie’s canvas and study Moreau’s Seráphine, who is so alien and so open.