Martin Provost, director of the biographical Sraphine, has little use for pretty pictures. Instead he plunges us straight into an earthy, pre-WWI universe of vigorous French housecleaning. From these heavy, creased knuckles—those of a devout washerwoman, driven by hinted-at instabilities—come almost psychedelically vivid paintings of swaying plants and burning buds.
She is Sraphine Louis, brought to complex, brutish life by Yolande Moreau (a sensation at home for this performance). She steals blood from organ meats for her red oils, toils into the night and finds unexpected encouragement from a wealthy German patron, Wilhelm (Tukur), himself soon hounded out of the rural countryside as explosions light up the horizon.
Sraphine pushes its quiet class antagonism while also reveling in a kind of snobbery: to think that such brilliant work came from a lumpen proletariat, etc. So it’s a wonderful surprise when, at the halfway mark, the movie reinvents itself as a lark. The war is over and Wilhelm, rediscovering his long-lost “modern primitive,” endows her to live the life of a pampered art star. Sraphine takes the opportunity to become a (knowing?) parody of ostentatiousness, spreading out into twelve suites and buying a fancy bridal dress for an unknown groom. Was this the real painter? No matter. Like Amadeus, Sraphine wants to get its hands dirty with the work itself. The movie understands creative types and their whims, even if it tips toward a long-telegraphed retribution.—Joshua Rothkopf