The pain of the painter

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

MARTIN PROVOST skirts two trou­ble­some gen­res in this earthy, scuffed, beau­ti­fully per­formed study of the French prim­i­tive painter Séraphine de Sen­lis. Too many films that deal with men­tal ill­ness treat the con­di­tion as a kind of di­vine su­per­power: con­fu­sion bal­anced by the gift of naive wis­dom. Con­versely, too many films about artists treat ge­nius as a trou­ble­some dis­ease.

Al­most en­tirely free of sen­ti­men­tal­ity, Séraphine presents its pro­tag­o­nist as in­fu­ri­at­ing, un­know­able and stub­bornly hu­man. She emerges as an an­noy­ing sort of hero – that is to say, not the sort you usu­ally en­counter in biopics.

Provost cer­tainly has a good story to tell. Born in 1864, Séraphine Louis made a liv­ing clean­ing and cook­ing for the bour­geoisie in an undis­tin­guished cor­ner of north­ern France. Un­be­known to her em­ploy­ers, she spent her evenings paint­ing com­plex repet­i­tive pic­tures – of­ten of flow­ers – on pieces of raw board.

The film con­tends that life changed when Wil­helm Uhde, a dis­tin­guished Ger­man art dealer, rented a house in Séraphine’s town. Spot­ting one of her paint­ings at a neigh­bour’s house, Uhde be­came con­vinced that he has dis­cov­ered a gen­uine out­sider artist. He en­cour­aged the shuf­fling, highly re­li­gious ec­cen­tric to ex­pand her style and he be­gan plan­ning an as­sault on Paris.

If this were a fic­tional piece, then Séraphine would be rapidly lifted from poverty to find a place among the great artists of her day. Un­hap­pily, the first World War in­ter­vened and sev­eral more decades of ob­scu­rity – as well as in­creas­ing men­tal in­sta­bil­ity – fol­lowed.

There is much to en­joy here: Provost finds murky beauty in both the seedy hov­els and the grand ar­chi­tec­ture of Séraphine’s home­town; Ul­rich Tukur is be­liev­ably tor­tured as Uhde; the mourn­ful mu­sic by Michael Galasso (who, sadly, died two months ago) com­ple­ments the action beau­ti­fully.

This is, how­ever, a film that hangs upon its cen­tral per­for­mance. De­ter­mined and un­yield­ing – an un­likely com­bi­na­tion of hedge­hog and rot­tweiller – Yolande Moreau al­lows Séraphine her dig­nity without down­play­ing the in­sta­bil­ity of her mind. One of the per­for­mances of the year, it pro­pels you out of the cin­ema with a pow­er­ful de­sire to in­ves­ti­gate the paint­ings fur­ther. You can’t ask more of an artist’s biopic.

A strong con­tender for per­for­mance of the year: Yolande Moreau

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