It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
You might not look twice at her. Seraphine is a bulky, work-worn housecleaner who gets down on her knees in a roomy print dress and fiercely scrubs the floor. She slips away from work to steal turpentine from the church votive candles, blood from the butcher and clay from the fields, and these she combines with other elements to mix the paints she uses at night, covering panels with fruits and flowers that seem to look at us in alarm.
Seraphine de Senlis, who died in a French mental institution in 1942, today has her paintings in many museums. She did not paint for money or fame, although she grew heady when they began to come her way. She painted because she was instructed to by her guardian angel. Sometimes while painting, she would loudly sing in praise of the Holy Virgin. In this miraculous film we learn nothing of her low birth or early life; we only see her daily toil and nightly ecstasy.
"Seraphine" arrives from France as the year's most honored film, winner of seven Cesars from the French Academy, including best film and best actress. The actress is Yolande Moreau, who combines, as some people do, a plain face with moments of beauty. Notice her fleeting little smile of complicity as she steals fuel from candles before the Virgin. Moreau plays Seraphine as a straight-ahead charger, a little stooped, marching always with energy, plunging into work, not saying much, shy, but very much who she is. Her physical bearing tells us what we need to know about her mental state.
Her life is changed forever when Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) comes as a boarder to the home she works in; it offers a pastoral setting in Senlis, her hometown near Chantilly, and she observes that Uhde needs relief from stress. He's a famous German art critic and a Paris gallery owner, already famous as an early champion of Picasso and Braque; he discovered Rousseau. He glimpses one of Seraphine's little paintings of apples, asks to see more, is convinced she is a primitive genius. (In the film, we appear to see her actual paintings.)