A naive, between-the-wars French painter is brought to vivid life in the satisfying fact-inspired drama “Seraphine.” An extraordinary perf by vet thesp Yolande Moreau in the title role will propel this throwback example of vintage Euro arthouse storytelling to a larger canvas of fests, theatrical deals and homevid.
Just prior to the Great War, in the small town of Senlis, not far from Paris, middle-aged loner Seraphine Louis (Moreau) works a grueling series of domestic jobs while painting at night. In her fleeting free time, she communes with nature, furtively gathering soil, animal’s blood and even the run-off oil from church candles to mix the paints she otherwise couldn’t afford. Fittingly, her intricate, colorful canvases are of fruit and flowers run riot.
When the German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) and his sister Anne-Marie (Anne Bennent) move to town, he’s shocked to discover one of Seraphine’s smaller paintings at a dinner party thrown by the well-to-do art lover Madame Duphot (Genevieve Mnich).
Uhde buys all Seraphine’s work promptly, with the middle of the pic delineating the delicate relationship between aesthete and savant.
Interrupted by World War I, during which Seraphine stays in the nearly deserted town and paints through shellings and scares, the artist and critic are reunited in the late 1920s, with her rapid mental deterioration leading to a sad, tragic end.
Helmer and co-writer Martin Provost brings a pastoral eye to the story, layering the tale with a discreet visual style while at the same time firmly understanding the pic belongs to Moreau. Her Seraphine is a creature at once pitiable and divine, a natural talent so devoted to expression that all else is meaningless.
Vet Tukur convinces as an aesthete thrilled to be in the presence of greatness but smart enough to know he’ll never understand her muse.
Tech package is sumptuous but still manages to sell the squalor. Artist is more familiarly known as Seraphine de Senlis.