With apologies to Nina Simone, I’d like to dedicate this week in film to four women: Yolande, Mariah, Maya and Joan. In her last two lead performances, Brussels-born Yolande Moreau has shown exceptional nuance and grace in roles that could have easily toppled lesser actresses. “When the Sea Rises” (2004), which Moreau also co-wrote and co-directed, begins with a potentially disastrous premise — a performance artist traveling with her bizarre one-woman show “A Dirty Business of Sex and Crime” begins a tentative relationship with a man who makes giant papier-mâché puppets — and becomes one of the sweetest, most original road-romance movies in recent years. In Martin Provost’s “Séraphine,” the fleshy 56-year-old actress plays the title character, a real-life naïve artist who died in an insane asylum in 1942, courageously forgoing the histrionics usually associated with biopics about the “touched.”
Séraphine, the housekeeper of a German collector, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), who championed her work in the ’20s and ’30s, may answer to the voice of her guardian angel when it commands her to paint and commune with trees, but she also responds quite avidly to the siren call of cash, reveling in the opportunity to splurge once Uhde has sold a few of her works. Moreau plays the painter as no one’s fool, and, in several scenes marked by silence, conveys Séraphine’s mental state as utterly inscrutable. Moreau, who’s had smaller roles in Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amélie” and Catherine Breillat’s “The Last Mistress,” was justly awarded the Best Actress César for “Séraphine” and “When the Sea Rises”; let’s hope that will translate to more recognition — and appreciation — stateside.
It’s unlikely that Mariah Carey will be weighed down with trophies for her role in the soggy redemption movie “Tennessee,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, but her solid acting, as a diner waitress in Texas who flees an abusive cop-husband and hits the road with two brothers, is definitely part of the Rehabilitation of Mimi. “The whole ‘Glitter’ experience was very, very hard to go through,” Carey says in “Tennessee”‘s press notes, referring to her critically drubbed, semi-autobiographical 2001 movie; nothing spurs a diva on more than proving people wrong. MC’s Lone Star twang is consistent, and when she disappears from the action, staying behind in Nashville while the brothers board a Knoxville-bound Greyhound, you wish she’d come back, with her cornrows, kerchiefs and acoustic guitar, to save us from the siblings working out their still-simmering family trauma. Perhaps all Carey needed to regain onscreen confidence was the unwavering support of “Tennessee” producer Lee Daniels; judging from the amazing performance the singer gives in the upcoming “Precious,” which Daniels directed, it’s clear he’s her charm bracelet.
Mariah Carey may be the only contemporary R&B songstress Maya Rudolph didn’t send up during her brilliant reign, from 2000 to 2007, on “Saturday Night Live.” I wish the actress displayed a bit more of the chameleon-like genius that defined her tenure on the show in “Away We Go,” her first lead role in a film. Rudolph and co-star John Krasinski play Verona and Burt, a couple expecting their first child in search of the perfect town to start their family.
Scripted by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida and directed by Sam Mendes, “Away We Go” incessantly trumpets its lead duo’s superiority, surrounding them with monstrous narcissists and tragically broken survivors. It’d be difficult for any performer to relax in such an overdetermined setup, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so disappointed that Rudolph seems uncharacteristically stiff and, at times, not fully committed to her character. I’m content to patiently wait for the vehicle that fully showcases Rudolph’s formidable talent (already apparent in a very small part in 2000’s “Chuck & Buck”); her appearances on “SNL”‘s “Deep House Dish” can tide me over until then.