A scene from Prune Nourry's "Serendipity"

Berlinale ’19 Review: An Artist’s Confrontation with Mortality Becomes Her Inspiration in Prune Nourry’s Vital “Serendipity”

Prune Nourry’s “Serendipity” opens with an image of what appears to be an insurmountable summit, but in allowing the moment to linger and the light to change, you realize it’s a sheet draped over the toes of the multidisciplinary artist as she lies in a gurney at a hospital, though the feeling is no less harrowing as if she were standing at the top looking down. At 31, she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer and after working so hard to bring everything that was stirring inside of her out, centering her sculptures and installations around the idea of fertility, she finds herself trapped inside a gown, robbed of the superficial markers of being a woman, whether it’s the breast she has removed or the hair she has to cut as part of her chemotherapy and instantly confronted with mortality when it only just seemed like the possibilities were opening up for her as her artistic voice began to coalesce.

With Nourry quite literally on her back when “Serendipity” begins, one can marvel at how she pulls herself from the brink or just as likely, how she documents her experience, artfully reflecting on past projects and the places they’ve taken her to draw the strength for her recovery. For those unfamiliar with her work, the memories of the mischievous “Procreative Dinner” from 2011 when the process of fertilization could be seen as if it were prepared by top chefs or the subversive “Holy Daughters” set in India, celebrating young women who are prized for their ability to later bear children yet are immediately disregarded in favor of boys, will seem refreshing enough, but so is how Nourry presents them in the context of her life-threatening diagnosis, making such bold, imaginative creations that she now thinks back to with slight skepticism and uncertainty as to how they all add up in a final analysis.

It becomes truly heartbreaking when Nourry recognizes the irony in being a sculptor who has no control over her own body, yet in puzzling together what meaningful bits and pieces she can remember or drift into as she makes visits to the health clinic — assembled with considerable care and clarity by editor Paul Carlin — she makes a compelling argument for the transcendence of artistic expression as it gradually restores a sense of purpose in herself and actively serves as the way in which she can communicate her most abstract thoughts. No less than Agnes Varda is on hand to remind Nourry that Amazonian women often deprived themselves of a breast to better shoot a bow and arrow and just as you suspect inspiration takes unusual forms for the artist, “Serendipity” comes by its galvanizing power quite organically, neither making you ever feel pity for Nourry in her unenviable current circumstances or offer some manipulative-feeling sense of empowerment by its end.

Instead, “Serendipity” encourages one to engage with the work being presented as fully as Nourry does, leading to epiphanies that could be entirely different than those that she arrives at herself, though are likely every it as satisfying, and while she lets audiences into the most private moments of her fight against cancer, it’s being allowed into her mind that becomes most bracing as her flirtation with death is brimming with life.

“Serendipity” opens on October 18th in New York at the Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center.

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