Stray raves and prizes from film festivals around the world paint a sunny picture of a thriving international cinema, but do you ever wonder what’s walking away with localized awards elsewhere in the world? Do the films that catch fire on the festival circuit represent their own nation at home as well as they do abroad? Or are those countries, like our own, more interested in handing awards to, say, some Czech approximation of Ron Howard?
If Martin Provost’s Séraphine is any indication, we can at least count France’s film establishment as America’s peer in celebrating their cinema’s stolid middlebrow. After nearly sweeping February’s César awards—beating out international favorites The Class and A Christmas Tale for Best Film—Séraphine is finally making its way to U.S. screens. It will fit in nicely with whatever prestige pics the studios toss at us this relatively dire Oscar season. (Alas, France has opted to submit Jacques Adiard’s edgier A Prophet as their Best Foreign Film contender.)
This isn’t to dismiss Séraphine, which is a lovely enough film in its own right. The film tells the true story of Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), a quiet, spacey woman who works odd jobs in the village of Senlis and a nearby convent. Some people seem to regard her with impatience, some with distant affection; either way it’s clear her mental health remains in question. She lives an altogether unremarkable life until 1914, when the 50-year old Séraphine is instructed to clean the newly rented apartment of Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German refugee and art dealer. Uhde has made his name as an early champion of painters like Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau, and soon makes another unexpected discovery: Late at night, divinely inspired, and using materials of her own devising, Séraphine has been painting.
Art fans may be familiar with the rest of the story. Séraphine is initially wary of Uhde’s enthusiasm—she more than once interprets his praise as mockery—but eventually gives in to his encouragement, and begins to accept her gift as something less than purely private. The resulting work, made possible by Uhde’s patronage, has since elevated Séraphine de Senlis into the canon of 20th-century French artists, most specifically within the category of so-called “naïve” art—whether she was ready for it or not.
The tale is a politely fascinating one, and told well enough. If the art biopic traditionally walks an uncomfortable line between re-enactment and interpretation, it’s perhaps wise of Provost (with co-writer Marc Abdelnour) to err in favor of Séraphine and Uhde’s rich story, even if the movie does occasionally play like a stodgy BBC production to stateside eyes. (Except, you know, in French.) Infrequent stabs at stylishness prove unsuited to Provost’s otherwise flat, stable execution, and there are rhythms that seem awkward and misplaced, but neither adds up to genuine flaw.
The big flaw, then, is that it is not a different movie altogether. Séraphine’s life story is surely a great hook for biography, and the film dutifully recreates it. But the essence of Séraphine’s art—itself the reason for telling the story—is the disconnect between who she is and what she has done, and there is little in Séraphine to reflect that. Is it possible to really get inside such an inscrutable mind, to peel back the fervor and find out where the art comes from? The film shies away from the question, and for the most part the art itself. The most notable exception is very tellingly Séraphine’s highlight: The artist, growing in skill and confidence, displays her work by candlelight to a series of neighbors. As the montage progresses, so does the intensity of Séraphine’s work, and the reactions tilt toward the unsettled. “I know,” Séraphine says, attempting to comfort one woman. “When I look at them, what I’ve done scares me.”
Ineffective as the film is at understanding her, it’s Séraphine herself who props it up. Moreau, best known to American audiences as Amélie’s landlord, is heartbreaking and perfect in a demanding role; from her stuttering gait to the intensity of her blankness, the actress disappears into Séraphine’s wounded innocence, and it is primarily to her credit that Séraphine never condescends to its subject.
It is talents like Yolande Moreau, then, who really earn awards; unremarkable films with self-serious dispositions like Séraphine just panhandle for them. Here is a fine movie about art history, but not a film about art.