This complex, utterly fascinating docu evolves in almost as varied and unpredictable ways as has its 96-year-old subject, famed sculptress Louise Bourgeois.

This complex, utterly fascinating docu evolves in almost as varied and unpredictable ways as has its 96-year-old subject, famed sculptress Louise Bourgeois. Pic reps a collaboration among three women: Bourgeois herself (assuming an active role in the cinematic reassemblage of her life, as she does in her fabric, stone or wood constructions), art historian Amei Wallach (in her first directorial stint) and the late, brilliant art documentarian Marion Cajori (in her last). Docu, which opened June 25 at Gotham’s Film Forum to coincide with the Guggenheim’s major Bourgeois retrospective, proves an integral, must-see part of her oeuvre.

The camera slowly approaches one of Bourgeois’ “cells” — a round wooden enclosure — and pauses uncertainly before venturing inside. More than anything else, that tentative pause, suspended between anticipation and dread, defines the docu’s focus. Unlike Cajori’s study of painter Chuck Close, which entirely revolved around the concept of process, this film, like Bourgeois’ sculpture, is born of emotional trauma.

Cajori and Wallach navigate this biographical quicksand with commendable finesse. Though Bourgeois’ work springs from deeply personal memories, the filmmakers display less interest in the backstory itself than in how the emotional residue of the past vibrates eerily through twisted torsos, red rooms or giant arachnids.

Pic relies little on talking heads, using them mainly as perverse testimonials to the life-affirming or life-draining effects of prolonged exposure to Bourgeois’ personality and work. As she herself explains, her emotions are too large for her body — without art, they would destroy her and all those around her. Kicking and shaking one of her signature pieces, a giant metal spider apparently representative of her beloved mother (“Aliens,” anyone?), she revels in its ability to stand up to abuse.

Occasionally the personal connects to historical reality with a jolt: Bourgois conjures memories of how GIs in WWI locked their limbs together (embodied in a sculpture of overlapping arms) to carry their wounded comrades, as silent black-and-white archival footage of shattered doughboys unspools.

The artist grappling with his or her demons is hardly a new notion, though any lingering romanticism surrounding that image is brutally snuffed out during the pic’s most unforgettable scene: Bourgeois’ slender fingers trace a pattern in black ink over the surface of a tangerine, retracing the lines with a razor knife and peeling off the rind to reveal an intricate, anthropomorphic pattern with a phallic fith at its center.

The link between the fruit and Bourgeois’ childhood illuminates the creepy specificity of the objects in which her demons dwell — from the huge mirror-hung towers (“I Do,” “I Undo,” “I Redo”) that lend their titles to the docu’s three parts and an encased double-headed penis dubbed “Janus” to the taut agony and/or ecstasy of the nude body stretched on “The Arch of Hysteria.”

It’s easy to see why Bourgeois’ aggressively eroticized work, alternately playful and horrific, could be so long overlooked during a period of abstract formalism.

Tech credits are superlative. Mead Hunt and Ken Kobland’s prowling lensing makes the most of Bourgeois’ complex, three-dimensional constructs, while Kobland’s precise cutting weaves 14 years of coverage into a single, graceful homage.

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine

Production

An Art Kaleidoscope Foundation production. Produced by Marion Cajori, Amei Wallach. Executive producer, George Griffin. Directed by Marion Cajori, Amei Wallach.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Mead Hunt, Ken Kobland; editor, Kobland. Reviewed at Film Forum, New York, June 19, 2008. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Louise Bourgeois, Jerry Gorovoy, Jean-Louis Bourgeois, Robert Storr, Deborah Wye.
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