Review by Cassam Looch
YOU might recognise the star of the film from the Jean-Pierre Jeunet films she has been in but this is a very different role which is both heartbreaking and brilliant… much like the film itself.
In 1914, Wilhelm Uhde, a famous German art collector, rents an apartment in the town of Senlis, 40 kilometers away from Paris, in order to write and to take a rest from the hectic life he has been living in the capital.
The cleaning lady is a rather rough-and-ready 40-year-old woman who is the laughing stock of others. One day, Wilhelm who has been invited by his landlady, notices a small painting lying about in her living room. He is stunned to learn that the artist is none other than Séraphine.
The film manages to avoid many of the clichés that stand before biopics by focussing on a lesser known figure and by creating a vivid story around her.
Séraphine is an instantly likeable character who is clearly troubled but causes no ill to those around her. The opening shot is wonderfully evocative of the time and place required and subtly introduces you into the world of Séraphine whilst managing to remain slightly opaque.
Her rise to some sort of fame seems genuinely portrayed; it’s not the rags to riches type fantasy you might expect, rather a slow and faltering ascent which often falls down just as most things in life do.
Even when things are going well for Séraphine, you are never allowed to feel totally comfortable that it is a happiness that will last for too long.
Yolande Moreau is excellent at portraying a seemingly simple woman who is trapped in the prison of her own mind. Whilst Séraphine clearly has talents, she is also fragile and at times volatile… in a modern context her condition would have been easily treated but you wonder if her talent would have been any more recognized.
Indeed, perhaps because of her looks and, more over, her age she would probably have had no greater success today than she experienced in war-torn France.
It’s a knowing glance at celebrity culture as the trappings of such a lifestyle are a timeless theme; however, the film doesn’t deviate to the detriment of the core story.
The relationship between Séraphine and Wilhelm is genuinely moving and when circumstances mean they are separated for vast swathes of time you find yourself willing for them to find one another again.
The performances capture the emotions and situations of the people involved brilliantly and the tone, by director Martin Provost, manages to be emotive without being too melancholy.
This might be a tough watch, but it is ultimately rewarding and boasts a great central performance which is one of the best of the year.
In French, with subtitles
Running time: 121 mins
UK DVD Release: March 29, 2010