Movie Review: Séraphine, starring Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur

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The film begins with Séraphine (Yolande Moreau) already a brutish, middle-aged woman. She trudges the streets of Senlis with the grace of a tank, shuffling between odd jobs and her work as a housekeeper while clandestinely collecting ingredients for her paints at each stop. We are told that Séraphine believes she was visited by her guardian angel, and the divine interloper suggested that God thought it wise that she pick up the brush. Ever the dutiful Christian soldier, Séraphine complied and began spending all her spare time painting. She’s quite good of course, but the foul bitch she works for as a maid tells her it’s trash.

[image-2]Things change with the arrival of Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), who takes up residence in the foul bitch’s downstairs apartment. A bit of a mystery at first, Uhde is a German art collector evading persecution back home for his homosexuality and laying low in the French countryside. Uhde happens on a Séraphine original while at a horrible gathering of his landlord’s (let’s just say everyone’s a critic), and offers to buy the painting on the spot. Though surprised the painting is the work of the housekeeper, Uhde takes Séraphine under his wing and encourages her maturation as an artist. Unfortunately, World War I soon arrives, forcing Uhde to flee and Séraphine to lose touch with her new patron.

This early stretch of the film is delightful, mixing beautiful photography and composition with wonderful, understated performances by Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur. (It’s no mystery why Séraphine won so many awards.) Moreau imbues Séraphine with a mix of innocence and determination that slowly morphs into derangement, while Tukur gives Uhde a world-weariness fitting someone who has much he stands to lose. The second half of the film is more complicated, as we jump ahead in time to the early 1930s, when Séraphine’s mind and Uhde’s finances seem to go into decline simultaneously.

As the third reel of Séraphine played, I realized how conditioned I have become by Hollywood movies to expect some kind of violent payoff or explosive moment. Séraphine is a movie with scenes set during WWI that leave the war completely off-screen, and has at its center a meeting between a woman and her guardian angel that we only hear about second-hand. If they made this movie in L.A., the CGI budget would have been $100 million. Instead, Séraphine is a wonderful, quiet movie that’s beautiful to look at while being complex enough to chew on later. And in today’s high-testosterone cinema landscape, that’s a rare find.

There’s a fine line between artistic brilliance and outright lunacy, as if whatever spark ignites creativity also lights the fuse of mental illness. The artist works, often obsessively and at a furious pace, producing what they can before the powder keg of the mind finally goes boom. Case in point: Séraphine Louis, an early 20th-century French painter in the naïve style. Louis’ life story forms the basis of French-Belgian import Séraphine, a 2008 production finally getting a local run starting Friday at the Tampa Theatre. The film cleaned up at the 2009 César awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars), winning seven trophies including Best Picture, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from most everything currently playing at the multiplex.

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