Director Martin Provost; Release date: out now
I can't recall the last film I saw in which the lead character was a middle-aged, ordinary-looking, working class woman with mental health issues. That she is also an artist and a real person makes this story rare indeed.
Yolande Moreau plays Séraphine Louis (known as Séraphine de Senlis - the French town in which she lived and worked), a cleaning woman and an artist "discovered" in 1912 when she was already nearly 50.
For the first portion of the film we follow Séraphine on her daily routine - cleaning a middle class woman's home, helping at the local butcher's, attending church. She barely speaks to those around her, to the point of seeming rude. She is talked down to and laughed at, assumed to be stupid. Her daily life is one of absolute drudgery, washing other people's sheets in the river and scrubbing floors. As she goes about her work she surreptitiously siphons off a piece of soap here, a bottle of blood there, some molten wax from church candles, twigs and seeds on her way home.
Finally we see her at work by night, in her tiny rented room, painting by candlelight. She mixes secret potions and applies them with brushes and fingers, crafting intense, repetitive patterns of fruit and leaves. This is when she is really alive.
When Séraphine's boss rents a room to a renowned German art collector and dealer, it seems her life might be transformed. Wilhelm Uhde was one of the first to exhibit Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Rousseau. He championed the so-called "Modern Primitives", and in Séraphine Louis he recognised the same depth and spiritual beauty. He bought all her work and encouraged her to devote more time to her art.
But as this subtle biopic shows, the mighty events of early 20th century Europe - as well as the built-up pressures of her life - would not let it be. First the outbreak of the Great War forces Uhde to flee. It will be 13 years before they meet again. Later the Wall Street Crash takes out the art market and destroys her prospects. Like her fellow naive artist, Rousseau, Séraphine was buried in a pauper's grave.
During Uhde's absence, with the ravages of war all around her, we follow Séraphine as she develops her painting style, putting her art above everything else. She barely sleeps as she stays up all night working, and she can afford to eat only once a day. She paints larger and more ambitious canvases, singing Latin prayers as she works and descending (or perhaps ascending) further into religious ecstasy.
There is a wonderful scene in which Séraphine invites neighbours and friends to view her new paintings - some are confused, some scared, some moved to tears.
Séraphine de Senlis's story is not a happy one, but I am very glad it has been told and with the respect that she so clearly deserves.