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MOVIE REVIEW

Séraphine

An exquisite portrait of art and madness

MUSIC BOX FILMSYolande Moreau is remarkable in the title role of painter Séraphine Louis. MUSIC BOX FILMSYolande Moreau is remarkable in the title role of painter Séraphine Louis. (Music Box Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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‘Séraphine’’ may be one of the spookiest, most unsettling films ever made about the hazy line between art and madness. That’s a theme the movies have done to death, yet it finds new life in the title performance by Yolande Moreau, a shapeless middle-aged actress who embodies the creative urge with an intensity half animal and half divine. Earlier this year, Moreau won one of the film’s seven César awards - France’s version of the Oscars - yet there’s nothing actressy about what she does here. She seems to have wandered in from talking to gods in the fields.

The film tells the true story of Séraphine Louis (1864 - 1942), also known as Séraphine of Senlis, an untutored country washerwoman who painted ecstatic, almost hallucinatory still lifes of flowers and fruits. Discovered in 1914 by the German art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), her work was initially lumped in with the “naïve art’’ of Henri Rousseau and other painters, but today she’d be more correctly labeled - and celebrated - as an “outsider artist.’’ Whatever you call her, there was no place in pre-WWI Europe for Séraphine’s art and barely any place for her as a person.

Director Martin Provost keeps the paintings from us for a good half-hour, following Séraphine as she stumps around her small village, washing linens, cleaning houses, helping out shopkeepers for the stray sou. She’s the village idiot, for all intents and purposes, regularly climbing trees and ducking nude into the river to commune with spirits she alone hears. Uhde, renting a country house in Senlis to write his articles on Picasso in peace, looks at this large, ungainly woman scrubbing his floors and sees what everyone else in town sees: a piece of furniture, human livestock. The beauty is all inside her.

Almost by accident, the collector comes across one of her small artworks, painted on wood using oils Séraphine herself makes in secret. He pays her, praises her, urges her to keep at it, and this is incomprehensible to the woman, someone acknowledging what she sees and asking for more. Uhde, though, is an inconstant patron: as a German in 1914 France and as a properly closeted gay man, he is incapable of throwing caution to the wind.

This first part of “Séraphine’’ is filmed like a standard period piece, albeit with special attention to the wind in the trees. Provost, who wrote the script with Marc Abdelnour, presents Séraphine Louis as a misfit mystic on a par with William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh, but based on what we see in those prewar paintings, the analogy doesn’t quite hold.

The film jumps ahead, though, to 1927 and Uhde’s return to Senlis. The village’s 19th-century rural pace has vanished beneath a rush of motorcars, and Séraphine’s paintings have turned wild and brilliant, overflowing with the manic profusion of a disordered mind seeking its own beauty. Even she admits they’re frightening.

Where the story goes from here is predictable, in a sense, but the filmmaker resists melodrama, and “Séraphine’’ becomes not just another story of a tormented artist but a calm testament to mysteries, creative and psychological. The movie doesn’t explain Séraphine or judge her any more than Uhde learns to; it does marvel at her visions and pities her pain, and that, Provost suggests, is all that can be done. That, and providing a place of comfort.

Similarly, Moreau refuses to play to anyone’s notions of martyrdom. The actress has been appearing in films since the early 1980s but she still seems freshly discovered by the camera, a lump of clay imbued with self-consciousness. The hair is lank, the face sagging and inexpressive; only in her eyes does Séraphine betray a love of nature that’s both religious and ravenously sexual and an inner grandeur that becomes helplessly poisoned by outside acclaim. What Moreau does with this role is as inscrutably moving as anything Séraphine Louis painted.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

SÉRAPHINE Directed by: Martin Provost

Written by: Provost and Marc Abdelnour

Starring: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 121 minutes

Unrated (as PG: brief nudity)

In French, with subtitles

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