You have to hand it to the French: they know how to make movies. I watched this one in a tiny theatre underneath the town hall. There are only 8 seats, there is a line down the middle of the screen where it joins, and the soundtrack from the next, bigger theatre boomed through the wall , but none of that mattered. Neither did the fact that the dialogue was in French, for this is one film that could have got by without any dialogue at all. Two things carried the power of this masterpiece: the stunning cinematography of Laurent Brunet and an achingly beautiful performance by Belgian actress Yolande Moreau.
The story is a fictionalised account of the life of Naive artist Seraphine Louis (1864-1942). In the title role, Yolande Moreau is present in almost every shot of the film. Seraphine is first seen gathering seeds and roots and mud and blood as ingredients for the paints she has invented. Her movements are slow and ponderous, her footsteps heavy, but she glides through the countryside in absolute communion with rocks and trees and flowers; she is as much part of the landscape as the components of it she gathers. Her rough natural theology is channeled through an ecstatic, experiential christianity which gives rise to the voices of saints and angels who command her to paint. She works as a domestic servant, unregarded by those for whom she cleans until one of them, a German aesthete and art collector discovers her paintings. Under his encouragement she develops and grows until she attains a measure of popular and financial success, and it is this success that destroys her. Separated from the almost pagan communion with nature that feeds her soul, she gradually loses touch with reality and descends into psychosis.
The editing and cutting are masterfully done. Small shots are crafted together without dialogue or comment to suggest bigger wholes. The director, Martin Provost has not been afraid to use very lengthy shots from a single static camera to give a studied, unhurried pace to the film. The pallette is wonderful, echoing as it does the colours concocted by Seraphine for her paintings. There are some lovely, understated portrayals : of a French village which can accept an eccentric in their midst and love and support her; of a cultured and refined man whose nationality and sexuality make him as much of an outsider as Seraphine; of a convent of nuns who know the real power of spirituality. All is portrayed at a leisurely, almost contemplative pace and with costumes and sets which make every shot an artwork. The end of the film is sad but not devastating; the film remains a testament to an innocent who has discovered the something that the art and religion of the broader society is aching to find through all its mannered aesthetics and rituals. It's a film which speaks deeply about being human. It has sat with me all day, and I suspect it will for a while: at least until I can see it again.