Written by Martin Provost and Marc Abdelnour
Directed by Martin Provost
Starring Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur
Most films about painters fall into the trap of staring over the artist's shoulders as they work the canvas. After a while, an audience can feel ignored, maybe even in the way.
We don't get a good look at a painting until 35 minutes into the film biography of Séraphine de Senlis, the early 20th-century French painter discovered by German art collector Wilhelm Uhde.
The film Séraphine is not about paintings.
It's about discovery - Wilhelm finding Séraphine and the artist discovering her talent.
Neither breakthrough was pre-ordained. Séraphine was a laundress and cleaning lady; a furtive recluse who felt rapture when alone with nature - sitting in a tree staring at waving fields, or standing in a stream, arms waving in the current.
She said her archangel told her to paint. She had visions.
Wilhelm Uhde was a visionary, too.
He perceived talent before anyone else; was the first to buy paintings by Picasso and Rousseau.
The German collector also saw the First World War coming, hiding out in Senlis until just before his countrymen rolled into France in the summer of 1914.
Before fleeing France, Uhde found Séraphine. Or is it the other way around?
In the film, she's his oddly interfering domestic. Seeing Uhde is unhappy, Séraphine serves him fortified wine - the same ingredient she uses as the base for paints. Later, she tells him when she's glum she takes a walk in the woods and her troubles disappear.
Uhde is trapped in an awful dinner party at his landlady's home when he spots a discarded canvas on the floor. The painting of seemingly alive, drunk-with-colour flowers reaches for him. Who is the artist? he asks.
Hearing it is Séraphine, Uhde leaves without touching his Baked Alaska.
The German becomes Séraphine's second archangel, giving her art equipment, cash and the one thing artists need more than money - praise. At first, Séraphine doesn't believe his flattery. "You are mocking me," she tells Uhde.
"Do I look like the type to mock?" he replies.
"A little," Séraphine says, lowering her head.
Martin Provost's film benefits enormously from the participation of his leads. We've seen Ulrich Tukur before. He was the happily cruel secret-service officer in The Lives of Others .
His German art collector, Wilhelm Uhde, is something else again - a gay, manic-depressive connoisseur with an aptitude for staying alive; a talent tested by two world wars and a Depression.
Tukur's Uhde is a study in caution and conviction. He is only happy playing the piano, sometimes standing up - ready to flee if soldiers come banging on his door. With Séraphine he is empathetic and practical, finding her eyes when offering encouragement. Uhde also understands Séraphine's difficult situation. She is the town's lunatic; also its lone genius. "Don't listen to what others say," he tells her. "They don't know anything."
Yolande Moreau ( Paris, je t'aime ) is a revelation in the title role; a part she plays without vanity and sneaking humour. Though unwanted, crazy and poor, Séraphine makes the most of her disadvantages, pretending not to understand what she doesn't want to hear. And she makes her bosses pay twice, taking their money and then carefully counting every coin, as if to suggest they're cheats.
She seems to know she's the superior being. They're only rich, wealthy in the eyes of merchants and bankers. She's an artist, a creature of divine inspiration.Report Typo/Error