Directed by Martin Provost. France. 2008. PG. 125 min.
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“A luminous, slow-moving period piece with a central core of quiet mystery, French director Martin Provost’s film about self-taught “modern primitive” painter Séraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau) will provide immense rewards to patient viewers. A multiple award-winner at the Césars, or French Oscars, “Séraphine” is not a picture that yields its secrets easily.” “In its first half-hour, little is revealed about its title character, a blowsy, middle-aged cleaning woman of few words who strikes up a tentative acquaintance with German art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), who has his own reasons for hiding out in a provincial French village in 1914. War is on the way to sweep the old European order away, but when Uhde sees the paintings on wood that Séraphine has been making — inspired by her religious visions, and with paints made from secret ingredients — he is convinced he has discovered an unknown genius.
Uhde and Séraphine were real people, but Provost is no more concerned with telling a “true story” than Tarkovsky was when he made “Andrei Rublev.” The comparison is purposeful; if “Séraphine” isn’t quite at Tarkovsky’s level of difficulty, it is nonetheless a film whose beauty arrives moment by moment, and it requires you to abandon most narrative expectations. Just when you think you know where the story of Uhde and Séraphine is going, it isn’t going there anymore. Provost does a marvelous job of capturing Séraphine’s world, in which her remarkable, van Gogh-inflected paintings are not inherently more important than her prayers to the Virgin or her work as a laundress; all are part of the same humble, worshipful existence (or, if you prefer, the same borderline mental illness). Yolande Moreau is an astonishing actress, mime and comedian whose physical type would prevent her from being a movie star elsewhere in the world, and her work is always worth seeing. If you turn off all that electronic crap in your pockets and sit still for it, “Séraphine” will be one of the year’s most memorable moviegoing experiences.” (Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com)
Read Kenneth Turna’s review in the L.A. Times.