French artist Prune Nourry, who has made a career exploring ideas about motherhood and femininity through sculpture and other forms of art, applies those same queries to herself in the documentary Serendipity. Shot after Nourry learned of her breast cancer diagnosis and capturing elements of her treatment, Serendipity works as a compact collection of the artist’s career and a meditation on what her cancer diagnosis means for her as a woman and as a creative force.
Nourry, who was born in France and has been the artist in residence at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn since 2011, centers the documentary from her point of view. There is no question that Serendipity is her lived experience, beginning as she is laying in a hospital bed, being pushed around a hospital by nurses. We see the white sheet and the equipment in her room, hear her steady breathing, observe as someone with one of those sterile masks on explains paperwork to her in French. And as a doctor crouches in between her legs with a medical device, we understand that we are glimpsing an egg-extraction procedure—sitting with Nourry during an intensely intimate experience.
Serendipity throws viewers into that situation, which sets the tone for the rest of Nourry’s highly revealing documentary. We see her very intentionally and purposefully react to her breast-cancer diagnosis, making changes physically: cutting off her long braided ponytail while bearing her left breast, like an Amazon; later buzzing off what is remaining of her hair in profile, and then turning declaratively to stare directly into the camera, and at us. We see the changes to how she presents herself, as she now incorporates head scarves and turbans into her fashion repertoire, simultaneously a covering of her shorter hair and an addition of attention-grabbing accessories. And we see her hospitalized after a panic attack woke her up in the middle of the night, a gripping fear that the end is near. “Now I know,” she says of what a panic attack feels like, and that practical attitude is in stark contrast to her art style, which we see can be quite playful.
Nourry’s art style is often immersive, as evidenced by a dinner party in which diners eat a cheese course shaped like a baby and a dessert shaped like a breast, and an installation in New York City in which people are allowed to create—and drink—a liquid made to look like semen as a commentary on the American sperm-donation procedure.
“Why am I doing what I’m doing as an artist? Procreation, fertility, and I had no clue,” Nourry admits, and much of her work focuses on the female body and what it represents. In India, a sculpture combines a cow’s head and udders with a woman’s body, and it’s decorated with a floral garland and jewelry for a holy ceremony. In New York City, she works on a gigantic woman’s head made of clay, which she later covers with a sort of acid that creates deep cracks within the work. And in China, she enlists a team to help her create dozens of Terracotta Daughters, life-size female figures made of clay that put a spin on the army of figures buried with the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. The ongoing project will continue until 2030, and people’s reactions to it allow us to see how Nourry’s art functions with an audience.
The combination of these glimpses into Nourry’s process and her finished pieces, coupled with her cancer treatment and her refusal to stop working, add nuance and context to her goals for herself as an artist. There’s an unblinking quality to the documentary that is admirable, although its briefness—only about 70 or so minutes—doesn’t allow Serendipity to delve too deeply into Nourry’s life outside of her art. Her bond with her family, any romantic relationships, and her friendships aren’t really considered here; Serendipity focuses on Nourry and her art alone. It’s a narrow view but a well-crafted one, and for both fans of Nourry’s work and those new to it, Serendipity raises poignant questions about womanhood, creativity, and how we filter life through art and reflect art in life.