Film Review: ‘Serendipity’

Guy Lodge

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“If I could have a secret superpower, it would be to heal with my hands,” says French artist Prune Nourry in her autobiographical documentary “Serendipity.” It’s an understandable enough admission, given that she was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 31, fighting a battle against it that included undergoing a mastectomy, harvesting her eggs in advance of chemotherapy, and a tough personal reckoning with her changed body. It would have been easier, of course, to heal herself by her own touch — except in Nourry’s view, that’s essentially what she did, albeit through art rather than science. “That’s why I’m a sculptor,” she says, gesturing toward her own busy, clay-acquainted hands: “Serendipity” documents creativity blossoming from misfortune, positing that, alongside medicine at least, it’s inspiration that has kept Nourry alive.

Once you banish all rom-com associations from your mind, then, “Serendipity” functions as two documentaries in one. The first is a heartfelt cancer diary, sometimes shot disorientingly from the gurney as Nourry is wheeled through hospital wards and mumbled over by concerned doctors. The other is effectively a polished career portfolio, reviewing Nourry’s elaborately conceptual art projects from the past, present and even future for those who may not be acquainted with her work, and considering their potential legacy as the artist herself faces her mortality. Those two remits overlap more tidily in some sequences than in others — either way, the project is very much driven by the slightly melancholic whimsy of Nourry’s strong personality, as she fashions “Serendipity” itself as another artwork in her image.

Granted a limited theatrical release after a festival run that began in Berlin, “Serendipity” has accrued a number of influential patrons and admirers along the way, including executive producers Angelina Jolie (who herself underwent a prophylactic mastectomy some years ago) and Darren Aronofsky — while the late Agnès Varda makes a brief onscreen appearance to offer wily counsel to Nourry at a low ebb. The film’s estimable collection of guardian angels should boost its profile and encourage word of mouth as it makes its way to small-screen platforms; they’re also indicative of the distinct reputation Nourry has already carved for herself in the modern art world.

Ample flashbacks to earlier, more blithely playful projects make it clear why: One amusing passage documents her peculiar 2009 interactive exhibit “The Procreative Dinner,” which visualized the various stages of in-vitro fertilization as successive edible courses in a dinner party. Though she’s always been a staunchly feminist, gender-conscious artist, the winking bad taste of such provocations does appear to bite back at her when, years later, she’s more soberly forced to consider ways of preserving her fertility as cancer casts its long shadow over her. Much of Nourry’s art, furthermore, makes a point of its impermanence: the macabre servings of “Procreative Dinner” were eaten, while the central sculpture of her Indian-located traveling exhibit “Holy River” was ultimately cast into the Ganges.

As Nourry wonders if she herself might not be long for this world, she seeks to create something that could potentially live her: A large portion of “Serendipity” is dedicated to her long-term sculpture project “Terracotta Daughters,” the many female statues of which are collectively buried in China, set to be excavated only in 2030. Beyond some surface commentary, it’s mostly left for the viewer to infer the personal metaphor and poetry in such gestures.

Nourry isn’t the most self-effacing of artists, and “Serendipity” could stand to reveal more of her artistic process, rather than gazing upon the often formidable finished product. Still, on the occasions it stops self-curating and gives us a glimpse into Nourry’s frightened, still-restless soul, this is a stirring, imposing self-portrait. Per its title, “Serendipity” may allude to the ultimate casting vote of fate, but it also shows the young artist taking what control she can in directing her life, and her potential earthly afterlife too.

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