Senlis, a small town outside Paris in 1914. By day the middle-aged and devoutly Catholic Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) toils away as a servant and washer woman. In the evenings she paints on her hands and knees in her room, using soil, candle-wax, animal blood and flowers for her vividly imagined depictions of nature. By chance, a German art dealer Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), who’s staying in Senlis, discovers one of her creations and sees in Seraphine a ‘primitive’ talent. And when he returns to the area in the mid-1920s, he’s determined to make her famous.
Wisely French writer-director Martin Provost doesn’t attempt a cradle-to-grave account of his subject’s existence. From the outset this bracing portrait associates its title character with nature: she climbs trees, bathes in a lake, urinates in a field, and forages the raw materials for her artistic output. Asked why she is compelled to paint, Seraphine replies that that she is guided by her ‘guardian angel.’ Best known hitherto for her comic performances, Moreau is exceptional in the title role, and there’s fine support from Tukur, as the gay, bourgeois ‘outsider’ figure, who feels a kinship with this female outcast. Of course Seraphine isn’t the first film to explicitly connect genius and madness, but this remains an unsentimental, patiently rendered story.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 27 Nov. GFT, Glasgow from Fri 11 Dec.