Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Released yesterday on DVD: "Seraphine"

Grade: A

Mixing her paints with candle wax and singing to herself like a sorceress devising a transformative brew, Seraphine Louis was a maid, a servant, who spent her long days washing linens, scrubbing floors.

And when her hard work was done, she'd toddle back to her tiny apartment in a French village and create magic with brush and board: swirling, vibrant paintings of flowers and trees, almost psychedelic in their intensity, their suggestion of spiritual life.

Seraphine, Martin Provost's transcendently beautiful portrait of this briefly celebrated figure in the "modern primitive" school that included Henri Rousseau, is the rare movie that manages to convey the inner soul of an artist. Set in the years just before the First World War and then on into the late 1930s, the film belongs to Yolande Moreau, an actress with wide, watchful eyes and an ability to turn a smile into a gesture of celestial possession.

Nowadays, Seraphine Louis, later known as Seraphine de Senlis (the town, north of Paris, where she lived), would be called an outsider artist - untrained, eccentric, working in a style and method without pretense or influence. Back in the time between the wars, she was viewed as just a stooped-over woman who could be found wandering in the woods, muttering to the trees, when she wasn't busy cooking and cleaning.

Her artwork was considered clumsy and amateurish - until an esteemed critic, the German Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukir), moved to town, and was immediately struck by Seraphine's work.

It is under Udhe's encouragement and patronage that Seraphine's paintings blossomed, so to speak (flowers and fruit are her main subjects). In the film, Uhde is depicted as an erudite but unsettled man, harboring personal sadness and evincing a keen and confident appreciation for new artists. Tukur's performance is graceful, quiet, strong.

And Moreau? She won the French equivalent of the Oscar for her work here, and it's much deserved. (Seraphine won the best-picture prize, too.) The character's fleeting success in the art world, her moody naivete and childlike reverence for both the natural and religious worlds - and her fall into isolation and psychosis - is conveyed with such tenderness and totality that it's almost heartbreaking to behold.

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