The paintings of French artist Seraphine Louis (1864-1942) -- known, to the extent that she is known at all, as Seraphine of Senlis -- are of the sort you might find on the walls of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. Wild and more than a little bit frenzied, they're crawling with fruit, flowers and other forms of vegetation that seem drunk on Miracle-Gro.
The artist herself, who worked as a cleaning lady by day, was also fueled by a kind of homemade "energy wine." That, at least, is what we learn from "Seraphine," a fictionalized account of the artist's discovery, in the years before World War I, by German art dealer and critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), followed by her brief rise and descent into madness.
In fact, the madness was probably there all along. As played by Yolande Moreau, Seraphine's grip on reality is none too firm. Told to paint by her guardian angel, Seraphine forgoes food (and paying the rent) to buy art supplies, so powerful is her need to create. Uhde is her champion, peddling her art -- a kind of modern primitivism, like that practiced by Henri Rousseau, another of Uhde's favorites -- to his wealthy clients. But it's not enough to save Seraphine from herself.
She handles her sudden acclaim and financial success badly, collapsing under the weight of her own expectations when the market for her pictures peters out during the Great Depression.
The line between madness and genius is thin. Not to mention more than amply explored in any number of films about tortured artists. But to look at the almost religious ecstasy on Moreau's face is to feel the artist's passion and be inspired by it. "Be ardent in your work," says Seraphine, quoting Saint Teresa of Avila, "and you will find God in your cooking pots."
-- Michael O'Sullivan (July 17, 2009)
Contains brief sexuality and nudity.