You may think you're a DIY visionary artist, but you don't have jack on Séraphine Louis, aka Séraphine de Senlis. This self-taught, early-20th-century French painter worked odd, backbreaking domestic jobs around the northern French hamlet Senlis, doing everything from general housekeeping to laundry to acting as a butcher's assistant. During these perambulations about town, she gathered the raw materials she needed for her nocturnal activities: blood from the butcher, paraffin stolen from burned church candles, soil and other natural ingredients to create the homemade pigments she used while painting almost through the night, an intensely private activity during which she sang sacred songs to herself. She believed her painting was a divine instruction from her guardian angel, and the resulting images on boards and, later, large canvases are nature-inspired floral and foliage designs of intoxicatingly alive colors and movement.
That Séraphine lived like a serf most of her life and died in an asylum in 1942 all but ensures the sort of hagiographic tragic-artist cult that surrounds such bios, but director Martin Provost's Séraphine is a commendably sanguine affair. It's unambiguously serious French historical drama, mind you, of the Jean de Florette and Germinal sort. But it also works as an intimate story of one woman's mental instability; the film commendably does not demur from recognizing that whatever powered Séraphine's art was also responsible for her social awkwardness and institutionalization.
Anchoring this movie is a subtly powerful turn from Yolande Moreau as the titular artist. Looking and acting like Björk after 30 years' wear and tear as a rural vagabond, Moreau delicately balances Séraphine's roomy corporeality and childlike, patently naive relationship with the world around her. All of her employers treat her like a simpleton, which is exactly how German art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) sees her until he first views her work. An early advocate of Braque, Picasso and art brut, Uhde champions her until World War I forces the closeted homosexual to flee; Uhde and Séraphine eventually reconnect in the late 1920s, by which time her work has evolved into its dizzying maturity.