Documentary Review: A feminist artist confronts her cancer in “Serendipity”

 

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The journalist, memoirist and writer-director Nora Ephron kept this phrase as the creative person’s mantra — “Everything is copy.”

In an artist’s life, everyone you meet, everything you hear and see, everything you experience is fair game to be used in your creative process.

So when the Franco-American sculptress, performance artist and art video creator Prune Nourry was diagnosed with breast cancer, her first reaction was the one any woman would have.

And the second? She was going to use it in her art.

“Serendipity” is a career retrospective documentary she’s made, framed by her fight against cancer, all the way up to and including surgeries.

“Everything is connected,” she says. “I don’t believe in ‘coincidence.” So titling her film/journey “Serendipity” is a little French irony for the art consuming masses.

In her case, considering the fallopian/female fertility-centric nature of her art, she could do nothing else.

“Serendipity” shows her working with large-form sculptures, wandering through stick tunnels meant to suggest fallopian tubes. She gives  us a laugh with her video of a staged sculptural demonstration she once did of a five course meal at a four star restaurant where babies are made.

“The Procreative Diner” begins with the “cocktail” course — in vitro fertilization — and plunges on until we reach the finale, the “Cheese Course,” delivery.

There’s the street food cart “Sperm Bar” interactive installation, where passersby can check the “menu” of sperm donor traits they’d like.

Meanwhile, she’s braided her long black hair one last time, and invites friend, the late filmmaker Agnes Varda, to talk with her and photograph her as she chops it off.

“Am I still a woman with short hair and only one breast?” she asks the director of “Le petit amour.”

Later, she shaves her head. We’ve begun with her videoing her trip into surgery, a hospital gurney’s eye view of what she experiences. And we end with meeting her doctor as he marks her up for restorative surgery to fix the skin around the implant she had when her breast was removed.

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We revisit her most ambitious works, seeing the Ganges River mud harvested and packed on straw frameworks for an installation called “Holy River.” Then there’s her optimistic piece,”Terracotta Daughters,” which she began in 2012 and plans to finish by 2030. Because she plans to survive.

“I had just realized I was a human being and I could die,” she says, undergoing chemo. She has no time for death.

You’ve heard and seen pictures of the ancient Chinese Terracotta Army commissioned by an emperor of the distant past. Nourry is photographing Chinese girls and designing and sculpting and commissioning her own terracotta army around them. This army is of girls, less valued around the world, even by her own French grandmother.

“Terracotta Daughters” is an immense piece, blunt in message and clever in execution.

Every artist has a hint of the self-obsessed navel-gazer about her or him. And “Serendipity” has its share of that.

And suffice it to say, if you’re not into modern conceptual art, this isn’t for you. But if you are, there’s something celebratory in this artist obssessed with female sexuality, fertility and the female form taking this potentially deadly diagnosis and making art out of it.

“Serendipity” isn’t necessarily what Nourry will be remembered for, but it makes a fascinating primer on her work, her obsessions and how she turns around breast cancer into a disease she was meant to have all along.

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MPAA Rating: Unrated, nudity, profanity

Cast:  Prune NourryAgnès Varda

Credits: Directed by Prune Nourry,  script by  Prune Nourry, Alastair Siddons. A Cohen Media Group release.

Running time: 1:15

 

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