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 butcher's assistant. During these perambulations about town, the poor woman gathered the raw materials she needed for her nocturnal activities. She gathered blood from the butcher, paraffin stolen from burned church candles, soil, and other natural ingredients to create her homemade pigments that she would use when painting almost through the night, an intensely private activity that often involved her singing 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 tragic- artist hagiography cult that surrounds such stereotypical 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, hence the seven Césars it won this year--so if technically superb and patiently plotted period drama makes you fall asleep, stay away. The rest of you can enjoy an intimate story of one woman's mental instability, as Séraphine commendably doesn't 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 of being a rural vagabond, Moreau delicately balances Séraphine's roomy corporeality and childlike, patently naïve 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 sees her work. An early collector/advocate of Braque, Picasso, and art brut, Uhde champions her until WWI 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. This patron-artists relationship is short-lived, though, curtailed by the oncoming depression and Séraphine's increasingly fragile mental stability.