By Rick Kisonak | October 6, 2009

Imagine you’re a frumpy French house cleaner who stays up all night conjuring hallucinatory paintings of fruits and flowers because your guardian angel instructed you to do so. And that, seemingly by divine intervention, your work is discovered by a prominent art critic who promises to make you rich and famous. Then imagine how betrayed you’d feel when both your patron and your heavenly advisor appear to have misled you. No Paris exhibition. No adoring crowds. No fancy automobile. It might be enough to drive you mad. For Seraphine Louis (1864-1942), it was.

Of course, she was pretty out there in the first place. As played by Yolande Moreau, Seraphine is one of the more colorful personalities in the pastoral village of Senlis. She talks to trees, bathes nude in the river, uses chicken blood to mix her own red pigment and sings songs to the Virgin Mary as she paints. Most of the time though, she labors. Director and co-writer Martin Provost (with Marc Abdelnour) do a very clever thing: They show their subject scrubbing floors, washing linens and doing laundry for her stern employer for at least a half hour before showing us one of her creations.

Knowing her only as this bulky, semi-mute beast of burden, we are as astonished by the revelation of her gift as is the tenant whose floors she’s been scrubbing. Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) was a famous and influential German critic and gallery owner who’d come to Senlis to write a series of articles about Picasso, whom he was among the first to champion along with Braque. He discovered Rousseau. Uhde recognizes instantly that Seraphine is a “modern primitive” genius and assures her that they will do great things together if she continues to develop her talent. To her, the chance encounter is more than just a promising career opportunity; it’s validation of her faith.

Uhde takes it on the lam when German forces invade the town, while Seraphine is so consumed by her work she seems to scarcely notice the first world war. The film offers a fascinating study of the subtle ways in which her psychology changes in the wake of her discovery. Anticipating one woman shows in world capitals, celebrity and riches, she amasses a body of wildly original work and begins to comport herself with an incongruous grandeur. When the war ends and a decade passes with no sign of Uhde, she’s unfazed. Time doesn’t seem to exist for her.

Fate plays yet another cruel trick on the artist, and it’s the one that finally pushes her over the edge. Uhde does finally return and is suitably impressed by the progress she’s made. Her long-promised exhibition is postponed indefinitely again, however, by the crash on Wall Street. It will be some time, she’s informed, before people resume spending big money on paintings. After a lifetime of back-breaking work and a close encounter with success, the disappointment is more than she can bear and she gradually loses her grip on reality.

Seraphine is a beautifully shot, superbly acted, brilliantly directed tale of great art and bad timing. The winner of seven Cesar Awards – France’s version of the Oscar – it ranks among the most insightful movies ever made about the connection between the creative process and madness.

Moreau’s performance offers a master class in acting without ever resorting to showiness. Tukur, for his part, creates a compelling character, though the actress’ most impressive costars are the extraordinary compositions of Seraphine Louis. The filmmakers appear to have gained access to the originals, and the glimpses the movie offers of them are worth the price of admission by themselves. They are as otherworldly and mysterious as the mind that imagined them.

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