The pain of the painter
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