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Vision Quest: 'Seraphine' Paints A Portrait Of A Lost Woman Artist

So often cinema holds up the female artist’s life as the stuff tragedy. One can’t help but look back to 1988’s Camille Claudel and begin to believe that women (albeit of a certain time and place) who choose art over hearth, home and convention are doomed to obscurity, madness and misery. Mercifully, France’s latest history of a lost woman painter, Seraphine, which opens Friday, July 17, doesn’t dwell on the martyrdom of Seraphine Louis (1864-1942), otherwise known as Seraphine de Senlis, a servant, cleaning woman, and laundress born long before her time and driven to make art in a society that treated women of her class as little better than dogs.

Director Martin Provost instead concentrates on the obsessive passion -- and workaday life -- of this self-taught painter who was touched by mental illness, succored by nature, and ordered by her guardian angel to make art. Louis’ diurnal routine is as regular as the sun’s passage: she cleans houses and delivers laundry to customers for equivalent of pennies, finding respite in the trees, the birds and the beauty of nature. At night, she spends her sous on varnish, grinds her own colors and paints beneath a shrine to the Virgin Mary, warbling songs of praise to her creator and the very act of creation.

All that begins to change with the arrival of a new tenant at the house she cleans: art critic and gallerist Wilhelm Uhde, the first serious collector of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque’s cubist works and the discoverer of such modern primitives (his preferred term) as Henri Rousseau. Provost lavishes his gentle attentions on both the bower-laced, leafy countryside of Senlis and Louis’ paintings, underlining the connection between the landscape and the artist’s teeming, patterned, borderline-surreal explosions of blossoms, stems and fruit. In them the stigmas and filaments of flowers resemble spidery tentacles and all-seeing eyes, and the filmmaker manages to capture the strangeness, beauty and utter surprise of the self-taught artist’s work -- a revelation to the viewer, as they are to her -- while Yolande Moreau (Amelie), who won a 2009 Cesar for her performance, brings a palpable dignity and sharp-eyed hues of emotion to her portrayal of Louis. There’s little romance and glamour in Louis’ life, and Provost’s portrait, which took home the Cesar for Best Picture. Just the excitement and joy of making -- and discovery.



Seraphine opens July 17 at Clay Theatre, 2261 Fillmore St., S.F., (415) 267-4893, and Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 464-5980. For times and more information, go to www.landmarktheatres.com.