This is the remarkable true-life story of an ordinary cleaning lady who became a world-class painter in the early years of the 20th century.
Writer/director Martin Provost has crafted an intimate portrait of Seraphine Louis (comedienne and performance artist Yolande Moreau), a gifted self-taught artist.
The first half of the movie is set in 1914 and takes place in Senlis, a village near Paris. Seraphine is a large, matronly woman. She lives a hard life, but in her free time enjoys walks in the country and observing the wonders of nature. Her simple-minded domestic chores require little thought.
She previously worked at a convent and supposedly the voice of her guardian angel commanded her to paint. The movie takes you through the unique process of mixing paints. She uses her fingertips and sings religious hymns while painting.
The movie keeps the dialogue to a minimum, concentrating instead on movement and sound. Her eyes convey her single-minded determination during the solitary experience of creating art.
Seraphine goes to clean the apartment of a new tenant who turns out to be a prominent German critic and art collector named Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur, who bears a striking resemblance to John Lithgow). He discovers her unique “modern primitive” style and buys all her paintings.
World War I forces Uhde to flee France.
The second half of the film picks up in 1927 with Uhde living with his sister Ann-Marie and young lover Helmut in a rented Chantilly country home. Uhde goes to an exhibition of local artists at the town hall in Senlis. After noticing the familiar distinctive style and use of colors in a few paintings, he realizes that Seraphine has survived the war. These two societal outcasts reunite.
Wilhelm becomes her patron. Money and fame seem to be right around the corner as Seraphine’s life becomes better.
When Seraphine has an extravagant bridal gown made of taffeta and silk, she inexplicably descends into madness.
This movie debuted at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival. It won seven Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for Film, Actress, Cinematography, Costume Design, Music, Original Writing and Production Design.
Moreau gives a dominating, award-worthy performance. She has already received acting accolades from five different venues. The combination of the beautiful scenery, musical score and art work resonate into a sensory epiphany for the audience. The movie’s deliberately slow pace and the two-hour running time may be a turnoff to those favoring action over spirituality.
The dialogue is in French and German with easy-to-read English subtitles. Opening exclusively at the Tivoli in Westport.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"