It is 1912. By day, Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau) is a religiously devout housekeeper whose hours are occupied with the solitary duties of laundry, cleaning and ironing. In her spare time, however, she immerses herself in the wonders of nature. There she talks to the trees, birds and insects around her. It's the only communication available, and her intimacy with the natural world inspires her to express her feelings on canvas with anything she can find, whether wine, mud, fruits or flowers - or all of them. When German art critic and dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), an enthusiastic advocate of modern and primitive artists, visits the house where Séraphine serves, he is instantly mesmerized - and so begins a relationship that will expose her to the world. But as Séraphine paints her most inspired canvases, the power of her work leads her into the realms of madness.
Review by Louise Keller:
A plain, stout peasant woman wearing practical clothes goes about her daily chores. By day she works relentlessly as a cleaning woman, earning a few meagre sous scrubbing floors and doing laundry. As if to take a breath, she sits in church with hands clasped, deep in thought before awkwardly clambering onto a tree branch in meditation. But it is at night that Séraphine comes to life. By candle light, while singing holy music, she sits on the floor, mixes paints ('I have my secrets') and works on a simple-themed painting on a small wooden panel. This is a glimpse into the true life of Séraphine, the simple cleaner who believes she paints under instructions from God.
It's an intriguing portrait that unfolds slowly and elegantly. Set in the lush green countryside of France, every frame is a painting as we become part of Séraphine's daily routine. It's a career defining performance by Belgian actress Yolande Moreau in the title role for which she won Best Actress at the 2009 Césars. Moreau somehow manages to make Séraphine both simple and complicated, as she couples a subservient manner with her spiritual obsession. The film claimed a total of seven Césars (from a total of nine nominations) including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Score, Art Direction and Costumes.
Our journey through Séraphine's troubled life is validated through her relationship with acclaimed art critic and collector Willhelm Uhde (sympathetically played by Ulrich Tukur), who is drawn to the simplicity and uniqueness of Séraphine's work. The obsession with which she paints is at odds with the apparent peace she feels when swimming naked or simply sitting in the fresh air, the wind on her face. The only thing she lacks is time, Séraphine says, and the story winds its way slowly to her artistic successes as Uhde becomes her patron. Tragically, her story takes an unexpected twist which overtakes her artistic compulsion before sealing her fate. This is a haunting film and it is Moreau's wide-eyed expression and simplistic actions that make their mark in our memory banks.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Yolande Moreau won the Best Actress Cesar Award for her portrayal of Séraphine, one of seven Cesars bestowed on this exceptional biopic of the late artist - discovered when she was cleaning houses, scrubbing floors on her knees by day, creating amazing canvases by night. We see her surreptitiously sample the bloody ooze from a bowl of kidneys to mix with her paints for a unique red; or candle wax from the church...and her simple tools reflect her primitive subject matter. But she paints with such power and concentration, the images seem to be moving as you look, as one character observes.
The film begins in 1912 and creates such a dense sense of time and place that it's an immersive experience (hence the awards for production design, music, costumes, cinematography). Moreau, like the other famous and brilliant actress of that name, simply disappears inside Séraphine, who is serene and observant, stoic even, as she goes about her tasks, speaking little, humming or singing or chanting when painting, intense - yet strangely vulnerable. Her subtle and gradual escalation towards the mental imbalance that finally claims her is masterfully fashioned by Moreau, and it manipulates our sympathies perfectly. We get to know her - as much as it's possible to - and to care about her life. Her relationship with art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), is the central one of her life and the film.
As far as biopics of painters go, Séraphine is one of the very best.