Movies Reviews Martin Provost

Release Date: June 12

Director: Martin Provost

Writers: Marc Abdelnour and Martin Provost

Cinematographer: Laurent Brunet

Starring: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviève Mnich

Studio/Run Time: Music Box Films, 125 mins.

An untrained painter discovered in rural France

Stories about lowly domestic workers who turn out to have secret artistic abilities or who bear an unrecognized burden for the community often rub me the wrong way. It’s inherently joyful to watch a person blossom before skeptical eyes, but something about the attitude of a film that assumes the worst about its characters—both the servant and the people who ignore her until the truth is revealed—feels condescending. The difference between a real examination of inequality and a flattering tug at the heartstrings is often found at a story’s edges, brought out through subtlety and finesse. On the one side is Babette’s Feast (1987), charming and heartwarming for unclear reasons, and on the other is Imitation of Life (1959), a tear-jerker of immense power that rests on an intelligent skewering of our expectations. The difference is that Babette relies on the audience to feel good about their enlightenment all the way to the end, but Imitation relies on that sensation only to the point where director Douglas Sirk spins around and delivers a head-butt that makes me question what I’ve done. Ouch but thank you, Mr. Sirk. And pass the Kleenexes.

But where do I place the new French film Séraphine on this map? Yolande Moreau, the excellent French character actor whose face is more recognizable in the States than her name, thanks to appearances in popular imports like Amélie, plays the titular servant. She’s a mumbly, middle-aged, easily dismissed housekeeper, but as the first reel observes, she has interests outside of her employer’s home. The film tells the based-on-fact story of Séraphine de Senlis whose talents were discovered and exhibited by her German employer in the early twentieth century, a woman who experienced a mixed bag of fame as the creator of so-called naïve-primitive paintings. If the film had remained in that coy first reel forever, winking and hinting at what the woman does in her spare time, watching her pluck raw materials from fields where she travels on foot, and wondering with a knowing question mark what she’s up to, it would have been far less interesting.

Instead, the film follows her rise not with faux surprise but with a disenchanted eye, so those observations in the first reel echo throughout, not just the storekeeper who scolds her for spending her few precious coins on painting supplies but also the regular trips into nature, where she finds berries and flowers with the goal of pure, private enjoyment. Her gradual near-fame is an uneasy ride—one that follows the formula of historical dramas, where the world’s crises are tracked in parallel to personal triumphs and setbacks—but the film always notices the chasm between the classes, and it honors Séraphine’s affinity for the earth. She seems most comfortable not in nice clothes or fancy drawing rooms but in a field under the sky, which could sow the seeds of a cliché if stressed too hard: the noble, awkward, humble simpleton. But to the film’s other characters, she’s a blank slate onto which they project their own expectations, like Chauncy Gardner in Being There or the young woman in Vagabond. And to the filmmakers, she remains a prickly, enigmatic, and troubled human being, unredeemed by the acceptance of the fickle elite.

Séraphine often feels drained of energy, but I realized in the final moments that it wasn’t energy that I craved but a slightly more patient eye, one that floats with the painter even when WWI breaks out, even when finances collapse around the globe, because those are the times when the woman’s patronage waned. Earth-shaking events have local effects, but for a gatherer of berries they’re distant distractions. And at the movie’s conclusion, finally, that’s how they feel.

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