The paintings of Séraphine Louis, the subject of Martin Provost’s elegant, if somewhat reserved, film, lie somewhere between folk art and modernism, in the artistic grey area known as “art brut.” Coined by the artist Jean Dubuffet, who specifically sought out and collected art made by asylum inmates, this movement denotes those artists whose spontaneous, untutored techniques rhymed with those of Cubists, Dada, and Futurists, and matched modern artists’ desire to subvert, revolutionize, or “unlearn” prevailing aesthetic conventions. This designation of “outsider” or “naive” artists has come to classify those—like Adolf Woelfli and Henry Darger—who remained largely anonymous while they were alive, as well as many others—like De Chirico, Artaud, or even Daniel Johnston—whose mental illness existed alongside highly significant artistic careers.
In Séraphine, Provost laudably avoids the merely romantic image of the artist-visionary, like those fanciful notions of a young William Blake hallucinating a tree full of angels on London’s Peckham Rye. Instead, and through Yolande Moreau’s astonishing performance in the title role, Séraphine is volatile, pitiable, comic, and crazed, but she is never simply a starry-eyed dreamer whom folks just don’t understand. In 1914, at the outset of the film’s story, she is a maligned, middle-aged spinster in the rural town of Senlis, working as a maid, laundress, and cook by day, and painting her oracular, proto-psychedelic visions of nature by night.
Click here to read the rest of Leo Goldsmith’s review of Séraphine.