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An Inspired Artist, Found In An Unlikely Place

The cliche has it that when something on-screen is deadly dull, it's like watching paint dry.

But arguably, there's something even drier, at least in cinematic terms. That would be the appreciation of art — contemplating it, understanding it, finding inspiration in it. Especially when it's unconventional.

So in Seraphine, it's amusing to see what a celebrity the locals make of the art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) when he summers in the French town of Senlis.

His landlady invites all her friends to dine with him, and they bore him to distraction with their chatter about representational art. Until, that is, he spies a small unframed painting of flowers, tucked in a corner behind a piece of furniture.

Bold, almost childishly bright, with a bit of the wildness of a vintage van Gogh — this is the summer of 1912 — it intrigues him. Especially when he's told it was painted by Seraphine, the large, uncommunicative woman who cleans his rooms every day.

Seeking her out, he asks if she has any other work, and he's astonished at the drawings she shows him, painted on old boards and paper, each more vibrant and primitive than the last.

Seraphine of Senlis, Uhde recognizes, is an untutored but inspired naive painter, an artist who has been producing her work unheralded and at considerable personal sacrifice. Unable to afford paints, she gives her canvases vibrant colors and depth by scavenging pigments — oxblood from the kitchen, paraffin from church candles, bright flowers from neighboring fields.

She paints, Seraphine tells Uhde, because her guardian angel tells her to, something she has also told the somewhat skeptical nuns at a convent where she scrubs floors. Uhde becomes another kind of guardian angel for her, placing her work in Paris galleries, encouraging collectors to visit her, and giving her a stipend so she can afford pigments — and coals for the stove.

Writer-director Martin Provost tells much of Seraphine's true-life story without words, lingering here on the process by which she makes paints, there on the obsessive single-mindedness she brings to her art.

And so it comes as a bit of a shock when Yolande Moreau's Seraphine, all doughy and unreadable at first, lets you see how the passion that enriches her work might also upend her life.

She's more fragile than her bulky frame might lead observers to believe, and the voices she hears don't stop just because she's a success. A startling talent, she's also deeply troubled — a simple cleaning woman who is unready when the wildness she feels so ferociously migrates from her canvas to her real world.

In fact history tells us that a mental hospital was in Seraphine's future, though now her canvases grace the walls of institutions of another sort: several of the world's great museums.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.