Pick of the week, pick of the season to date, is the French Séraphine, a speculative, segmentary biography — twenty years in scope — of an obscure figure from 20th-century art history, Séraphine Louis, dite Séraphine de Senlis, a pious provincial housecleaner by day, and by night a compulsive self-taught painter (under past orders from her guardian angel at the convent), whose secret talent is discovered just before the First World War by one of her cleaning customers, a homosexual German art dealer and critic (discoverer earlier of Henri Rousseau) on sojourn in northern France, a prissy connoisseur preferring the label of Modern Primitives to the veiled insult of Naives. Were any of the townsfolk watching this humble drudge on her daily rounds, taking any notice of her — with her beast-of-burden gait, her bent back and sturdy hips, doughy face and loose strands of hair beneath a comically small straw hat, an ever-present fringed shawl around her shoulders — they might well have wondered what she was up to, pilfering vials of melted candle wax from the church or of blood from a pot of innards in madam’s kitchen, plucking fistfuls of wild grass, communing silently with nature, an instinctive pantheist touching the trees, feeling the wind. They would never guess at the dense patterns of intensely colored fruits, vines, leaves that take shape by candlelight in her shabby apartment.
Well structured, well proportioned, well (if slowly) paced, the film carries out a dispassionate examination of hidden inner worth, long ignored, thrillingly recognized, hazardously overinflated, and — it’s not an Andersen fairy tale — ultimately, tormentingly unrewarded. Anyone can relate. Both of the main characters, the painter and her patron, are complicated people, treated with respect but not reverence, tact but not timidity, by filmmaker Martin Provost (a new name over here), and played for full complication and consequent inconsistency and ambiguity by Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur. The latter might most warmly be remembered as the Nazi with a conscience in Costa-Gavras’s Amen, while the former, primarily a stage actress, and on screen a supporting actress, is apt not to be remembered at all. Instilled with that special French selflessness, that willing subservience to the guiding artistic vision, that Musketeering esprit de corps — one for all, all for one — she never raises the least suspicion that she is acting, only the total belief in her being. She is Séraphine, and Séraphine is she — all one. Nor, in the larger picture, is there the tiniest pinprick in the tangible illusion of the place and period, the sights, the sounds, the surfaces, the objects, observed with a near scientific exactitude. (A nod of acknowledgment, too, to the spare and unobtrusive but intensifying music of Michael Galasso, string-crazy composer of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.) The film, simply put, picks you up, sets you down, seals you in. Like magic.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, speaking of magic, comes close to a complete cheat. The once child actors, children no more, are developing faster than the story, and indeed the foretold war with the Dark Lord tends here to be crowded out by assorted amorous hankerings among Hogwarts classmates. (Those broomsticks for games of Quidditch are now looking more phallic than at first.) Whatever climax we had built to by the end of episode five, directed as was this sixth one by David Yates, is no longer in evidence, as we begin a new school year with a new guest star in the cast, Jim Broadbent (more or less assuming the prior guest spots of Imelda Staunton and Miranda Richardson) as the faculty’s new Potions Master, first introduced in disguise as an overstuffed armchair, a promising shape-shifting gift never glimpsed again. The laden production — muggy atmosphere, congested décors, piles of bric-a-brac, oodles of CGI — further gums up the plot machinery, impedes forward progress; and the infrequent action, when it comes, comes out of nowhere and quickly returns thereto. Toward the end, the sustained scene in the cavern does attain a degree of creepiness, not hard to do when you’ve got a battalion of the mutant offspring of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and this admittedly is followed by a Major Development. To get to that, however, oughtn’t to have required a two-and-a-half-hour running time. If anything, we seem further from a final resolution than we seemed at the finish of the previous episode, with two more (so I hear) still to go. The entire series shapes up as the exemplary opposite of economical storytelling, and the exasperated spectator can but concur with the character who declares at the curtain, “It was all a waste, all of it.”
Tetro is a sibling thing, self-importantly mythological, and purportedly semi-autobiographical, about two uncharismatic brothers (Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich) estranged from their domineering father, a world-famous opera maestro, withdrawn from him all the way to Buenos Aires. Its writer and director, Francis Ford Coppola, has far fallen off the pace of contemporaries like Scorsese and Spielberg, to such extent that the maker of The Godfather and The Conversation is liable to seem to the unfledged filmgoer a figure almost as remote as the maker of The Asphalt Jungle and The Maltese Falcon. (The blink-of-an-eye release of his Youth without Youth in 2007, after ten years’ absence, scarcely put him back on the map and into the consciousness.) As if to underline the point, his new film is shot largely in dark glossy glamorous black-and-white, with stretches of soggily saturated color — oh, that green dress! — reserved for flashbacks and illustrations of the elder brother’s autobiographical novel. (The color clip of the Coppélia segment from the Powell-Pressburger Tales of Hoffman, later restaged as a fantasy scene by Coppola himself, was surely chosen as much for the palette as for the echo of the director’s surname.) And when the novelist brother likens his Argentine lover to Ava Gardner, the younger brother, voice of the younger generation, has to ask, “Who’s Ava Gardner?” Older filmgoers, who do not glaze over at the sight of black-and-white, may find their collective eye caught by some of the baroqueries of the imagery, but they should be in the best position to judge the overall weight loss and compensating pileup of cosmetics.
Unmistaken Child is an engrossing account of the search for the transmigrated soul of Lama Konchog, a Tibetan Buddhist holy man who died in 2001 at age eighty-four, leaving his young, insecure, and sensitively photogenic disciple, Tenzin Zopa, with the unwanted assignment of conducting the search, combing the countryside for signs of an extraordinary one-to-one-and-a-half-year-old. An astrological reading beforehand affords him a couple of John Edward-like alphabetical clues, a ninety-five-percent probability of the father’s name beginning with an “A,” and a letter combination of “ts” in the likely locale, sending him off on foot to the Tsum Valley where he himself originally came from and first met his master. So many documentaries these days — Food Inc., The End of the Line, Under Our Skin — are essentially just illustrated lectures, talking-head experts with visual aids. This one, the first effort of Nati Baratz, is a bona fide document, granting privileged access to an arcane process that stretches over five years, searching, finding, testing, verifying. It doesn’t go into the mysteries of reincarnation, only the (so to speak) missing-persons detective work. The utilitarian video image is by nature somewhat unappreciative of the physical world, but is itself a document of the difficulties of the shoot.