Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Whilst the film will surely help to promote her as an artist, one cannot help but feel that, from an artistic perspective, she took on this challenge too soon." | Photo: Lea Crespi/Pasco/Prune Nourry Studio

When one becomes seriously ill, it's easy to fade out of view of public spaces, to feel like a ghost. if one wishes to speak up, there are two accepted ways to do it: the tragic life story (usually as tiresome to watch as it is to experience) and the journey to enlightenment story. Sculptress Prune Nourry, diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31, has chosen the latter, and directs as well as stars in this documentary. Her musings on her illness will doubtless be helpful to some of those facing similar situations. Some of her art is interesting. The trouble is that there's nothing here that's really very enlightening. Whilst the film will surely help to promote her as an artist, one cannot help but feel that, from an artistic perspective, she took on this challenge too soon.

That Nourry would experience a sense of urgency is, of course, understandable. She doesn't know if or when her cancer will kill her and (though she doesn't mention it here) undergoing chemotherapy means that there's always a risk of falling prey to a fatal infection. She's at her calmest when going into surgery, floating along on a gurney, perhaps already under the influence of pre-meds. Many such patients report that this, when they are briefly freed from all the responsibilities that being ill entails, provides a treasured opportunity to relax. Preparing for chemotherapy, she sits swathed in white fabric that leaves her remaining breast exposed. looking like a piece of Classical sculpture herself. She has the kind of beauty that easily survives the removal of her hair, a process in which she is aided by the late Agn├Ęs Varda. Discoursing on femininity and the history of the Amazons, Varda demonstrates a confidence about her own vision which we never see Nourry achieve.

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Does it matter? Isn't uncertainty, vulnerability, essential to the cultivation of artistic ideas? Perhaps, but in taking herself as subject - in a series of creative projects, not just the film itself - Nourry risks a type of stagnation. Her discovery that she is mortal is touching but one needs to be young or quite privileged to share the innocence that preceded it. Seen in a wider context, the discoveries that flow from it are quite ordinary. This makes her trips to India - to make a cow-headed statue - and to China - to make terracotta women - feel rather lacking in self-awareness. The people she meets there clearly come to respect her sincerity but we see too little of their world, remaining narrowly focused on her projects.

The result of all this is a film that feels more personal than art-focused (there's a notable lack of focus on technique) yet, despite its constant referencing of the body, never really seems to get under Nourry's skin. There is no sense of risk beyond that generated, ex machina, by the disease. An exploration of issues around fertility in her work holds promise but interesting areas where it connects to the rapid division of cancer cells or the sacrifices necessitated by treatment are never explored, leaving one feeling as if one is looking at an artists's catalogue rather than being invited to engage with a developing vision. That Nourry co-edited the film compounds its problems. Her attempt to elucidate her own story is confounded by the fact that she's looking at it from the inside.

Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2019
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Prune Nourry is a French multi-disciplinary artist and a survivor of breast cancer. This documentary merges the artist and the cancer patient, offering an appraisal of her oeuvre and its newfound connection to her illness.

Director: Prune Nourry

Writer: Prune Nourry, Alastair Siddons

Starring: Prune Nourry

Year: 2019

Runtime: 74 minutes

Country: US


BIFF 2019

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