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‘Serendipity’: Film Review | Berlin 2019

Multi-disciplinary artist Prune Nourry makes good fortune out of bad in her very personal (and very promotional) feature debut.

At age 31, multi-disciplinary artist Prune Nourry was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease, which resulted in a mastectomy, only emboldened her creative efforts, the pronounced prospect of death pushing her forward instead of paralyzing her. That’s the inspirational vision that Serendipity, Nourry’s nonfiction feature debut, sells to us, anyway. For better and for worse, the film is both personal memoir and promo reel, and the emotions tend to be undercut by the self-marketing.

That’s not to take away from Nourry’s fertile imagination, which is evident from the first shot, as the camera assumes the POV of a body on a hospital gurney. It’s immaterial whether the faceless figure is dead or alive. This is more about reflecting on sickness, treating it ruminatively so as to extrapolate some kind of motivating purpose. Is there any meaning to be gleaned from the very thing that’s slowly sapping you of life?

The best scenes of Serendipity have a sublime sense of impermanence about them, such as the jerky-frame video of Nourry’s 2009 exhibit “Procreative Dinner,” where spectators are served a meal that mimics different stages and attributes of assisted pregnancy. The baby is the main course. Dessert is a flan shaped like a breast. Consuming this mock-flesh feast calls attention to the transience of the body as well as of the art that interrogates it.

Little that Nourry creates is meant to last. Take the six-meter tall clay sculpture — a humanoid cow’s head on a woman’s body — that served as the centerpiece of her project “Holy River” (2011-2012). Chiseled by artisans in a certain quarter of Calcutta, the statue was paraded through the city during the Durga Puja festival and eventually toppled into the Ganges. The figures in her China-based exhibit, “Terracotta Daughters,” had a slightly different fate in store. After being exhibited in various galleries throughout 2013, they were buried underground, where they will remain until being excavated in 2030, a year that Nourry notes she may not live to see. In this case, the art may outlast its creator, though, as Nourry’s cancer experience has taught her, no exact outcome can be predicted or guaranteed.

If all these ideas and affinities are evident in Serendipity, that doesn’t mean they entirely resonate. The film encourages us to sit with and contemplate Nourry’s illness (a chemotherapy session, in this context, has the strangely tranquil aura of a meditation session). Yet it often glosses over the meanings of and the methods behind the work that grew out of this state of being. All the projects are presented in checklist fashion, to the point that it feels like we’re watching an in-motion CV.

A scene in which French New Wave icon Agnes Varda shows up to assist Nourry as she crops her hair prior to chemotherapy hints at the simultaneously self-advertising and self-effacing movie Serendipity is trying to be. Varda is a practiced hand at this mode (see her movie Faces Places, on which she collaborated with Nourry’s professional and personal partner JR). Nourry, by contrast, never quite finds the right balance between confessional and commercial.

Director: Prune Nourry
Writer: Alastair Siddons
Producer: Alastair Siddons

Executive producers: Angelina Jolie, Sol Guy, Darren Aronofsky
Editor: Paul Carlin
Production manager: Maïa Dibie
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente)
World sales: Cinetic Media 

74 minutes

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