Dramatizing the agonies and ecstasies of artistic invention is never easy. Many films have tried and many films have failed. Sweden's meandering Oscar berth entry Everlasting Moments immediately comes to mind. The more successful artist biopics tend to rely on soap opera melodrama married to cinematic flights of fancy (Frida), or the pyrotechnical performances of their leads (Pollock, Camille Claudel) to generate dramatic heat.
Thankfully, Séraphine does neither. Martin Provost proves far too humble and studious a filmmaker to rely on crass sentimentality or hysterically cinematic moments. Instead, he's quietly empathetic in his depiction of avant-garde "primitive" painter Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), the religiously devout housekeeper who, discovered by art collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), created brilliantly abstracted paintings of flowers, fruit and trees. It is the on-again, off-again relationship — part business, part friendship — of the gay German patron and psychologically fragile prodigy that guides this impressively tasteful and beautifully filmed story. But while Provost's detached, almost academic, approach to artistic martyrdom may be aesthetically acute, it's also psychologically and metaphorically inert. For all its carefully crafted moments and attentively composed images, he never captures the tension between inspiration and tragedy or madness.
Nevertheless, Moreau and Tukur are so beautifully nuanced in their roles that it's hard to view them as anything but the real deal. And Provost's use of the period setting — Depression-era France — is similarly authentic. You can practically smell the poverty and desperation. But the director has delivered the kind of refined, evocative film that feels weightier than it is. This is, no doubt, the source of Séraphine's numerous accolades and awards. Its relentless modesty, however, also keeps it from achieving the greatness it deserves. Without emotional drive or intimacy, Provost's film becomes something to appreciate and respect — like a masterpiece under heavy glass — rather than something to feel.
At the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, July 17-18, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 19. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.