In her autobiographical film, Prune Nourry gets her hair cut by the late Agnès Varda.
“So Agnes, according to you, am I still a woman with short hair, and one breast?” Nourry asks Varda. “Are these not the attributes of a woman?”
“What kind of question is that?” Varda says. “There are some women with tiny breasts who are extremely feminine. And others with massive breasts, who are so feminine it annoys the others.”
At the age of 31, Nourry was diagnosed with breast cancer. An artist known for her insights into feminism, women’s bodies, and the newly-developing scientific world of procreation and bioethics, Nourry quickly found connections between her past work and her new diagnosis that felt like more than coincidence. So she made a film about it, placing herself in front of the camera, and puzzling together her own life with the help of other artistic friends in a way that felt very much like the title of her film — serendipity.
“Being proactive of being your illness really helps you. Not to be passive, not to be a patient patient. But getting your hands on what happens to you — that’s really important,” Nourry says. “If you can transform something happening to you into art, or something that brings you further into a positive way, it really helps.”
Nourry’s Serendipity doesn’t document the stages of her cancer or healing, but rather looks at the connections between bodies and science that Nourry had already been exploring through her performance art and sculpture. We look at the clips from her “Procreative Dinners,” which she staged to mirror the process of medically-assisted procreation using almond paste and molds of her own nipple. Years after the “Procreative Dinners,” which took place in 2009, Nourry lost her nipple after undergoing a mastectomy — a coincidence that echoed itself throughout the course of the film and Nourry’s life.
Serendipity also examines womanhood and agency, and how the two are tested and challenged by others. One of Nourry’s art projects involved burying 108 life-sized terracotta woman warriors in China. One of the male sculptors working on “Terracotta Daughters” at first “didn’t believe in her imagination.”
“I loved that — it took him many months that he would believe in it,” Nourry says. “And to him, when I see him, he considers the sculptures like his children, like his girls.”
But Serendipity is still — very closely — an autobiography, focalized through Nourry’s art. The process was a way of finding “catharsis” amid a life-changing situation.
“The act of pulling the camera towards myself and saying ‘action’ to myself was a way to be proactive about my illness,” Nourry says. “And the same thing to transform that illness into a material of creation helped me to go through that.”
And, it ended up ensuring that Nourry wouldn’t be going through this difficult process alone.
“I really needed that distance. It was about my experience, about my work. I wouldn’t have made this movie without writer and producer Alastair Siddons,” Nourry says. “The editor was also key to that movie. He’s like a sculptor — he can make ten movies out of one.”
Collaboration and aspirations for sincerity influenced the movie-making itself.
“I didn’t want to do a voiceover. It doesn’t work for me and for that movie. That’s why we decided on that format — of the conversation,” Nourry says of her and Siddons. “He was the one who was asking me the questions, and he knows me so well, and I trust him so much. So it was a very sincere exchange.”
The conversations are spliced through different scenes from Nourry’s past projects. At one point, she recalls a question a friend in China had asked her: If Nourry could have any secret power, what would it be?
“The answer came to me like that,” Nourry says in Serendipity. “I would like to be able to heal with my hands. If I could put my hands on someone, the illness will be gone. That’s why I was doing sculpture. Healing with my hands. For others, or myself.”
Opens Oct. 25 in Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema.