Part of what makes Séraphine — a biopic of little known but historically crucial post-impressionist painter Séraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau) — successful is that it makes a clichéd story feel completely fresh. The narrative of an artist toiling in obscurity, discovered accidentally by a powerful tastemaker (here, German art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde, played terrifically by Ulrich Tukur) and rising to fame, only to come crashing back down, has been repeated often enough to become the paradigmatic modern art story. After one character comments that Séraphine's art is as promising as Van Gogh's was, the complement proves eerily prescient: both ended their days poor, unknown and institutionalized. Thankfully, de Senlis' biography features enough diversions from that conventional path to keep our interest, and writer-director Martin Provost mimics the painter's life and art, crafting a film that is alternately self-effacing and spectacular.
Séraphine opens some months before World War I in Senlis, a small town near Paris, with Séraphine collecting materials for the paintings she makes during sleepless nights after working all day as a maid. These rituals — which have her pilfering the homes and stores of those who flee during the war — along with her mumblings about apparitions and divine missions, help steer the film clear of conventional biopic heroism. Séraphine is an outcast — by virtue of both by class and gender — but she's also a willing outsider. Moreau balances all these leanings incredibly, giving the lumbering, loopy spinster incredible charm and strength without condescending to the audience or embellishing Séraphine's story to the level of myth (à la Pollock or Frida).
Moreau's virtuoso lead performance gets the support it deserves (unlike, say Marion Cotillard's star turn as Edith Piaf in the otherwise average La Vie en Rose). Provost and co-writer Marc Abdelnour's script builds almost imperceptibly towards the moment Uhde discovers Séraphine's artworks, and plateaus with painting and shopping montages that momentarily evoke similar sequences in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, before embarking on a virtually parallel descent towards the artist's final days in a mental hospital.
All of this is complemented (but not over-emphasized, as in Julie Taymor's aforementioned Frida Kahlo biopic) by Laurent Brunet's cinematography. Brunet draws us into the atmospheric French village (Séraphine cooks and cleans in the kind of beautiful home so many impressionists painted as luminescent palaces) and executes unusual movements to pull up behind characters, presenting certain scenes like hung paintings glimpsed over some tall museumgoer's shoulder. This same calm lens moves more freely whenever Séraphine enters the frame, imbuing her presence with a kind of frenetic excitement barely contained by the frequent windows and doorways that organize the frame.
The film remains sufficiently grounded so that when we finally see Séraphine's largest works — wildly cacophonous flowers and plants whose towering forms and violent movements prompt one character to ask whether it isn't Satan, rather than God, who speaks to her — they elicit the appropriate wonder and awe lesser films would have drowned in shows of overwrought drama and spectacle. Like the painter whose life it commemorates without romanticizing, Séraphine wastes few words and very little energy, confident that its artistry will win us over.