There's a pleasing justice to the sudden rise of Yolande Moreau.
Long known to French audiences as a comedian in a popular TV comedy troupe, the Belgian-born Moreau was the surprise winner of the best actress trophy - ahead of the favourite, Kristin Scott Thomas - at this year's Cesar Awards, the French “Oscars”.
It was the kind of breakthrough that happens all too rarely; the type that occurs not because the actor is a hot new thing or sex on two legs but because they finally got the breakthrough role they've patiently awaited for years.
The prize was awarded for Moreau's quietly striking incarnation of the naïve artist Seraphine de Senlis in Martin Provost's sensitive, poetic biography of the painter, Seraphine. Released in Australia on Thursday, the film not only won the top acting prize for its star but swept the awards with seven prizes including the coveted best film.
Set in the first half of the last century, Seraphine is visually beautiful yet relatively slow, with long periods without much in the way of dramatic conflict. Without a thoroughly engaging lead performance you'd have an interesting story about an uneducated rural scullery maid who had an inexplicable gift for painting. But with Moreau as de Senlis this life story becomes something more ethereal, a haunting, almost mystical story of nature and culture interacting in mysterious ways.
When I met Moreau in Paris just ahead of the Cesars the understated charisma shines is immediately apparent. Blessed with extraordinarily light blue eyes and pale white skin, she gives off a remarkable sense of calm. I tell her I'd never heard of de Senlis but assumed she was a well-known figure in France, but it turns out that until the film she was largely unknown.
“No, I didn't know about her, the director didn't know about her,” Moreau says of the painter, speaking via a translator. “A friend who paints said, 'you should really look into this woman', so I went on the internet and got interested and got drawn in like that. And people in France don't know about her.”
A quick Google search will quickly give the reader a sense of the remarkably intensity of de Senlis' art. The film and an exhibition time to coincide with its release at Musée Maillol in Paris from last October until May this year have helped to create an enthusiastic new public for her swirling paintings (the canvasses depicted in the film are reproductions). Moreau describes the paintings as “like flaming bouquets of flowers,” before correcting herself.
“They're not really flowers, they're a flower concept without being flowers. If you look at her later ones they are full of a hidden sexuality, with vaginas and mouths.”
Moreau says Provost, the film's director, “very much wanted this exhibition to be held because he wanted to pay homage to her and he wanted to give her the exhibition she didn't have in her lifetime. I'd like to say for my part that, although' I'm not religious or mystical, there is something mystical about her and there seemed to be something about her that accompanied us while we were making the film, some sort of presence.
“When you portray someone who's actually existed, you do some research into what she might have been like, and in a sense, as an actress, you take ownership of her. And I too think this exhibition is a way of giving (de Senlis) her due, of rendering unto her that which she was entitled but never received.”
Seraphine is not Moreau's only recent career breakthrough. In the film she went on to make directly afterwards, Louise-Michel, she gives another wonderfully memorable lead performance, this time drawing on her comedy background as the unofficial leader of a group of unemployed workers who plot to take revenge on the boss who closed down their factory.
Somewhat stylistically reminiscent of another recent film, Swedish director Roy Andersson's equally deadpan You, The Living, this wickedly black comedy screened in competition at this year's Sydney Film Festival.
Presciently made by Belgian filmmakers Gustave de Kervern and Benoit Delepine, before the global financial crisis, this cynically funny and hyper-stylised film could hardly be more different to its gentle predecessor. Yet for all the obvious differences between Moreau's two star roles - Louise-Michel is a hard-boiled character who thinks nothing of hiring a hit-man - there are obvious similarities in the characters' mixture of natural smarts with lack of formal education (Louise-Michel speaks in barely formed sentences, like a simple farm girl).
“Yes it's true,” says Moreau, “there are many differences between the two characters and they are evolving in a different context, but there are some similarities in that they are from very lowly stock.”
She describes de Kervern and Delepine as “directors who take risks in the way they film. They don't want a boring sequence, and sometimes I got a bit worried about what effect the variety (of scenes) would have. But in point of fact it works very well, I find. They're wide open when they work. When you're on the set it seems a shambles but it's because it's work in progress.”
“With each image they're looking for something unconventional, unexpected, as opposed to where you know what's coming – they constantly have you off your guard. I see it as very intelligent comedy.”