- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

The French have been blessed for many years with great artists — and now a talented filmmaker finally has brought a little-known one to life.

You might not have heard of Seraphine Louis, known as Seraphine de Senlis, or the new film about her life and work, “Seraphine.” The movie was a huge success in its native France, however, winning seven Cesar Awards (the French Oscars), including best film — for which it beat “The Class” and “I’ve Loved You So Long,” favorites of American art houses this winter.

“Seraphine” isn’t a flashy piece of work about a larger-than-life figure, as artistic biopics often are. It is, though, as richly realized as the title artist’s floral paintings, a moving meditation on the costs of genius.

The film opens in 1914, with imminent war providing a subtle contrast to the idyllic landscape of Senlis. Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), an influential German art critic and dealer, has fled Paris for the countryside to write and reflect on the artists he loves. His landlady sends Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) to his house a few times a week; she makes her living cleaning and doing other odds jobs around town. He’s struck immediately by her eccentricity: After she comes across him one day in tears, she suggests he go for a walk, touching trees and insects, something she insists always bucks her up.

What really shocks him is the discovery of her talent. At a tiresome dinner of local “artists” organized by his landlady, he’s struck by a small painting tossed in a corner. He’s dumbstruck to discover it has been painted by his cleaning woman. She has many more, and Uhde buys them all, promising her exhibits in Paris and renown beyond. War intervenes, though, and the German flees, leaving Seraphine to go back to her cleaning.

Uhde eventually returns to France but assumes Seraphine, who was 50 when they met, is dead. He learns otherwise when walking through a locally organized exhibit in Senlis in 1927. In fact, she has developed and deepened her untutored talent. Uhde again becomes her patron, but this time, a bit of success could become the undoing of a woman who gets her inspiration “from above” and declares her hand is guided by a guardian angel.

Although slowly told, “Seraphine” never drags. Words aren’t always necessary for this character study of what seems to be one of history’s great characters. Miss Moreau, a Belgian comedian and director, won the best-actress Cesar for her gutsy but careful performance. We might watch her gathering materials for a while — she steals blood from the butcher and wax from melting church candles — before realizing, with a start, why she’s doing so.

“When I look at them,” this mystic says of her paintings, “it scares me.” A nun from the convent in which she used to work asks if Seraphine is certain a guardian angel still guides her hand. Genius and madness are sometimes linked, and this beautiful and sad film offers yet another example.

★★★½

TITLE: “Seraphine”

RATING: Not rated

CREDITS: Directed by Martin Provost. Written by Marc Abdelnour and Mr. Provost.

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

WEB SITE: seraphinemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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