More Moreau, Please!

seraphine 8 0 More Moreau, Please!Séraphine
Running time 125 minutes
Written by Martin Provost and Marc Abdenour
Directed by Martin Provost
Starring Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Wilhelm Uhde

Martin Provost’s Séraphine, from a screenplay (in French with English subtitles) by Mr. Provost and Marc Abdenour, tells the remarkable real-life story of Séraphine de Senlis, a 48-year-old chaste housekeeper whose naïve, brightly colored, still-life paintings were eventually recognized and celebrated by art museums in France and around the world. Her work was first discovered in 1913 by a German art critic, Wilhelm Uhde, who was the first person to appreciate and purchase the paintings of Pablo Picasso. He was also the discoverer of the eventually famous primitive painter Le Douanier Rousseau. As it happened, Uhde had rented an apartment in Senlis in order to write and take a break from his hectic life in Paris. In the course of his settling in Senlis, he hired a cleaning lady, the aforementioned Séraphine. While visiting the home of a prominent local family, he noticed a small painting on wood. The local people scoffed at the idea of a menial servant painting anything of artistic value. But they had also scoffed earlier at Picasso and Braque, two of Uhde’s intimate friends.

Séraphine is played by Yolande Moreau, one of the great screen actresses of our time, whom I first marveled at in 2004 when she appeared in When the Sea Rises, a film she also wrote and directed. Ms. Moreau has also graced us with her talents in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), Dominique Cabrera’s The Milk of Human Kindness (2001), Bénédicte Liénard’s A Piece of Sky (2002), Francis Palluau’s Welcome to the Roses (2003), Costa Gavras’ The Axe (2005), Albert Dupontel’s Locked Out (2006) and Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress (2007), among several of her performances that have not been widely distributed in the U.S. One would hope that her total filmography would one day form the inspiration for a complete retrospective of her glorious work.

Ulrich Tukur plays her discoverer and patron, Wilhelm Uhde, with authority and conviction. Yet, though Séraphine’s art has been finally vindicated, her life was full of frustration and heartbreak, and there were so many lapses of Uhde’s loyalty to her that the narrative becomes one of the saddest I have seen on the screen. If, indeed, the two leads had not been so supremely gifted, I would have had an easier time dismissing the film as a failed foray into art appreciation.

Of course, Séraphine and Uhde had the rare bad fortune of the outbreak of the First World War, forcing Uhde to flee for his life as a German alien caught in the maelstrom of Hun-hating Frenchmen; and then the worldwide Great Depression in the 1930s compelled Uhde to cancel his financially ambitious plans to showcase Séraphine’s art for French spectators. As a direct consequence of what Séraphine interpreted as Uhde’s betrayal, she went mad, and she was placed in an asylum in 1932, and died there in 1942.

Mr. Provost has directed the incidents forming the conjoined destinies of Seraphine and Uhde as a stylized series of brief, artfully constructed and carefully framed interludes mostly depicting the world of nature, from which Séraphine drew her inspiration and consolation. The film is a commendably worthy endeavor, and I am almost ashamed that my ingrained hedonistic attitude toward movies prevents me from recommending Séraphine more enthusiastically.

asarris@observer.com