Mentions of the Césars in print or in advertisements usually refer to them as "the French Oscars" or "the French Academy Awards," which is denotatively accurate, since they are the most prestigious film award given in France, and awarded by the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma, which is parlous similar to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But I think we all have a certain idea in mind when we hear the phrase "Best Picture Oscar winner": something comfortably middlebrow and artsy only in comparison to the kinds of movies that tend to do well at the U.S. box office. And if you up the ante to call it an Oscar-winning biopic, well, now we have a pretty securely mediocre type of movie altogether.

The 2008 César-winning biopic Séraphine is not anything like that kind of movie. It's the sort of tremendously subtle and quiet drama that wouldn't have a prayer in hell of getting any kind of awards traction or box office recognition in America; much too slow and demanding for that. Yet for the viewer willing to put in the work, it's more than rewarding; it is a real gift of a motion picture, the kind of thing that comes along just often enough to give an intelligent adult filmgoer a newly refreshed faith in the cinema.

Directed by the obscure and otherwise not noteworthy Martin Provost, the movie is about Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), better known as Séraphine de Senlis, a woman who created many paintings, mostly depicting flowers and trees and other flora, in the first half of the 20th Century, inspired by what she believed to be messages given by her guardian angel. For a long time, Séraphine toiled in obscurity, keeping herself alive by cleaning houses and washing laundry; she briefly achieved financial stability thanks to a generous art critic and patron, Wilhelm Udhe (Ulrick Tukur); and at finally she spent the last several years of her life in an insane asylum, dying before Uhde was able to arrange an exhibition of her works shortly after the end of World War II. Nowadays, we'd use the phrase "outsider art" to describe Séraphine's work; at the time, she was called a Naïve by some, though Uhde preferred "Modern Primitivist" (according to the movie, at least).

Imagine the least sensational, least melodramatic way you could possibly present that material; you have just visualised Séraphine. Though very much a story about the mind of an insane artist, the film entirely lacks the chest-beating theatrics of most Hollywood attempts - hell, most attempts by any movie in any national cinema - to address similar material. This is chiefly true of the depiction of Séraphine herself; at no point does she get a Crazy Lady awards show clip moment, nor is her condition or status exploited for maximum tearjerking emotioneyness.* Instead, the movie just presents her as a simple person with one desire and talent that had the good fortune to overlap. Séraphine is not glamorously messed-up; for most of the film we are given no reason to doubt the sincerity of her religious conviction whether or not we believe in its plausibility, and up until her first taste of major success, she is in all ways a completely appealing figure; not young and not beautiful, but friendly, open, and honest. When Séraphine starts to crack at the end, it is genuinely heart-rending that such a damn nice character has to suffer so; it feels like a friend is being taken away. Such is the pitfall of fact-based cinema.

Some credit for this must be given to Provost, whose direction is extremely precise and even a bit fussy at times, but he keeps the film clean and controlled. Especially in the opening third or so, when we are mostly just watching Séraphine go on about the business of her day, the film is in possession of a certain elegance, full of details and none of them spurious, all adding in tiny measure to our sense of who this woman is and what world she comes from. Séraphine's pace is measured and stately - decide for yourself if that is naught but a euphemism for "boring" - but we are thus able to dig into it slowly and steadily. The rhythms of the film are langurous, self-assured, and tremendously comfortable after a while. This makes the disruption of those rhytms all the more genuinely upsetting.

A great deal of the film's effect is also due entirely to Moreau, herself the recipient of a César for the performance. She's not terribly familiar at least in America, though you might recognise her from small parts in the odd film here or there, and perhaps it is the case that this lack of celebrity is part of what makes her so unnaturally good for the part; we have no "script" to read into the actress. Thus she's freed up to go about the simple business of living in Séraphine's flesh and teasing out what that must be like for the rest of us. Oh, how it is a sensitive and generous performance; the easiest thing to do would be to start tearing up the sets and act every bit the mad artist, but that is not how the character ought to be and thus not how she is played. In Moreaus's hands, Séraphine is a shy woman with a pleasant, welcoming face, a woman whose timorous Catholicism is the sole comfort in her rough life, being constantly pushed and bossed and ignored by virtually everyone in her world. She takes joy when it is offered, and is not angry when it is not.

Séraphine is no tragedy, and even less an inspiring tale; it is a depiction of a way of moving through life, being at peace with the universe - even in the asylum, Séraphine ultimately finds that calmness that has defined most of her existence. That's a hard thing to dramatise, when you get right down to it, and that's pretty much what makes the film such an uncommonly moving and wonderful experience: it is a cinematic depiction of a mindset, and a quiet and especially internal mindset at that. This is no small achievement, and it's certainly enough to secure the film a place as a tiny miracle, one of the better films to come out in America so far this year.