Séraphine Louis was a renowned primitivist painter, discovered by German art critic Wilhelm Uhde in the early 20th century. She had a brief period of renown before the global economic depression and her own troubled psyche drove her to an institution. In Martin Provost’s biopic Séraphine, Louis is played by Yolande Moreau, a veteran French actor with a gift for playing the lumpen and the deranged. Provost and Moreau emphasize their subject’s earthiness, as in a scene where she basks in God’s radiant light while hiking up her skirt to piss in a river. And they show the lengths Louis went to in pursuit of her art, including swiping blood from a butcher and wax from church candles so she could mix her own cheap paint.
But Séraphine is too much about the title character’s rise from obscurity, and how Uhde—played by Ulrich Tukur—worked overtime to convince his fellow dealers of Louis’ greatness. Though Séraphine is based on facts, too often the movie leans on scenes of incredulous bluebloods scrutinizing Louis’ canvases and saying things like “But these don’t even look like apples!” Uhde’s story only picks up steam after he’s fled France in advance of World War I, then returned post-war with a reputation for scouting “naives.” Provost and screenwriter Marc Abdelnour deal only fleetingly with the notion of condescension and exploitation, and whether an artist loses something vital when she drops her amateur status.
Séraphine is far more powerful when it lingers on Louis at work. Her canvases—mostly nature studies—were cluttered with colorful shapes and filigree, clearly arranged by an obsessive personality. Provost and Abdelnour go overboard with the scenes of Louis babbling about guardian angels, or complaining that Uhde doesn’t do her work justice because he doesn’t use gilded frames. Yes, there’s inherent power to the image of a plump washerwoman-turned-art-world-sensation roaming the streets in a bridal gown, gripped by madness. But it’s just as powerful to see her delicately finger-painting and singing quietly to herself, like a child touched by a moment of divine grace.