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Martin Provost’s Séraphine relates an ostensibly true story of remarkable artistic achievement in the face of extraordinary difficulties. As Provost’s film plays out, it seems to gesture toward both inspiration and moralism.

We are immediately presented with Séraphine (Yolanda Moreau) as she goes about her menial employments and religious devotions in the northeastern French village of Senlis in the summer of 1914. (And yes, this specific time is of great consequence.) She has just been engaged as a thrice-weekly housemaid in a large house that’s been rented by a German national and Parisian art dealer, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur).

Early on, Séraphine, a sturdy if somewhat dumpy, phlegmatic, middle-aged peasant, is portrayed in rapturous communion with the verdant glories of the countryside, and in particular with trees. It only gradually transpires that she’s also secretly a skilled, if naïve creator of dramatic post-impressionist still lifes and a kind of nature-based pattern painting.

The mutual propinquity of these two people may seem over arranged, but if their effect on each other’s lives was as serendipitous as Séraphine portrays it, it was another part of a strikingly unlikely story, one that the film only modestly illuminates.

As Moreau’s strong, adeptly inflected performance conveys, the historical Séraphine must have been a stubborn, shrewd woman, both in spite of and because of her blighted life and depressed station. She was also understandably suspicious, perhaps pathologically, even as she seems to have been a generous spirit. And as told here, she came increasingly under the disabling sway of her religious mysticism and worship of St. Theresa of Avila.

The film is handsomely successful in depicting the gently rolling landscape around Chantilly and the painter’s profound involvement with it. There’s also the alternately amusing and sadly frustrating relationship between her and the gay Uhde, apparently a well-intentioned and intelligent man who suffered his own fateful debilities. (A contrast with the contemporary art market’s gorging on celebrification and sportsworld-style self-enrichment?)

In the end, should we regard Séraphine’s story as inspirational or a commentary on the world’s cruelties and irrationality? Provost and his sympathetic film don’t really tell us.

george sax

Watch the trailer for Séraphine

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