Movies about artists are generally made by filmmakers who aren't. This explains why most films about the agonies and ecstasies of artistic creation are so phony. But there is a more justifiable reason for the mediocrity: It's very difficult to dramatize the throes of creation. Too many "aha!" moments can throw you right out of a movie.
"Séraphine" is a rare example of a film that does justice to the mysteriousness of artistic invention. Perhaps this is because the artist in question, Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), also known as Séraphine de Senlis, was a religiously devout housekeeper from the outskirts of the Seine Valley who lived an almost monastic life. With no training of any kind, she created canvasses, many of them floral abstractions, that were startlingly avant-garde – what today would be called "naive" art, or "outsider" art. For about 20 years, beginning before World War I, she worked away at her paintings while often living in dire poverty. She was committed to a mental institution in 1932, where she died 10 years later at 78, virtually forgotten by the art community.
The movie that has been made from her life by writer-director Martin Provost has an extraordinary purity, a humility, that is almost a state of grace. The film is really about two people: Séraphine, whom we first see as a cleaning lady at age 48, and Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), the German art collector whose rented home in Senlis, France, she cleans. Uhde was already renowned for his eye – he was the first buyer of Picasso and introduced the "naive" primitive "Le Douanier" Rousseau. When he discovers that the somewhat clumpy and bewildered woman mopping his floors is a prodigy, a relationship – part business, part soulful – develops between them that extends, with interruptions, through the next two decades.
This commingling was not a romance: The elegant Uhde was homosexual, and Séraphine, especially as the years wore on, owed her spiritual allegiance to her "guardian angels." What connected Uhde to Séraphine, despite his worldliness, was a profound sympathy for the outcast and a passion for the art that can arise from such a marginal state.
Along with his two great lead actors, who give almost preternaturally nuanced performances, Provost shares this passion. But his camera keeps a respectful distance. The unknowability of their lives, especially Séraphine's, is part of the film's sorrowful, luminous texture. Her life is dramatized as a series of brief, revelatory moments that, together, add up to a haunting whole. When we see Séraphine stealing candle wax from church altars to mix her paints, or peeking out from above one of her large canvasses, the moment seems frozen in time, a memento mori. Provost wisely doesn't play up a clichéd connection between Séraphine's artistry and her encroaching madness, but there is a sequence where a patron staring at her paintings seems to speak for all of us. She says the flowers look like "wounded eyes."
Because Provost does not sentimentalize Séraphine or dwell on the hysteria of her final years when she gave up painting altogether, his approach might be mistaken for ascetic. It's anything but. Near the end, Séraphine, addled by misery, wanders at dawn through cobblestone streets in a makeshift bridal gown as her neighbors, aghast, trail behind, and the police lie in wait. The scene is so emotionally ravishing that it breaks you apart. The peacefulness that finally descends on Séraphine in the film's final moments is more than a balm. It's a benediction. Grade: A (Unrated.)