Seraphine (PG)

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The Independent Culture

Séraphine Louis was an impoverished cleaner in Senlis in northern France until the German art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, an early collector of Cubists and the discoverer of Douanier Rousseau, discovered her brightly coloured, intricate paintings of fruit and flowers and declared her a painter of genius.

Their relationship was interrupted by the First World War, but in the late Twenties he exhibited her work in Paris and she became famous. In 1932, she was confined to a mental hospital, where she died 13 years later, aged 78.

This biopic, which swept the board at the Césaires, is somewhat over-inclined to reverence and simplification; but it is also, some of the time, rewarding and touching. First of all, it has Yolande Moreau as Séraphine – wide nostrilled, wet-eyed, heavy, the antithesis of screen conventions of beauty; though in one or two places the acting shows through, for the most part this is an admirably unselfconscious character study. It also has Laurent Brunet's cinematography, which makes the locations beautiful without prettification – the fields where Séraphine communes with trees and gathers the materials for her paints are tussocky and thistled.

But Martin Provost's script simplifies the story, and never bothers to challenge the myth of the untutored genius: there's no sense that anybody here has an agenda; they all just play their roles. The bourgeoisie of Senlis sneer at a mere maid's pretensions to talent; the sensitive, sophisticated Uhde appreciates her gifts; Séraphine struggles to paint against all odds. The film is careful to place itself on the side of the poor and the avant-garde, but being the side of the radicalism of a century ago is quite a conservative position. In the end, a life and a talent tinged with wildness are tamed.

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