The proud epitome of suffering for one’s art, radical French artist Orlan uses major invasive plastic surgery to modify her primary canvas: her own flesh. Queasy-making but instructive documentary “Orlan — Carnal Art” is not for the squeamish, but delivers visceral food for thought. Performance-art mavens and the piercing-and-mutilation crowd are obvious target auds, but any hardtop or tube programmer looking for something arrestingly different could exploit the midnight-movie potential lurking in film’s serious discourse. Docu recently enjoyed a month-long theatrical run in Paris.
Orlan’s sincere mission in life is to remold her body to echo historical examples of beauty, some of which have fallen out of aesthetic favor. Declaring “the body is obsolete,” she’s undergone a series of compound surgeries staged as art performances. With Orlan under local anesthetic, surgeons dig around under her skin much the way a woman may dig through a purse for her keys. Cheekbones, chin, ears, waist, ribs, thighs, nose — you name it, she’s tampered with it.
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Highbrow art crix and philosophers offer mostly admiring commentary about the deeper meanings of Orlan’s endeavors. Only one commentator, an American psychiatrist, thinks what she’s doing is outright wrong.
Footage from a trip to Madras in the early ’90s yields wonderful, Hindu-inspired visuals, including massive portraits of Orlan rendered by the sign painters who supply cinemas in India. In a 1993 seg, TV reporter Connie Chung tries to remain neutral while covering a vivid bout of Orlan’s surgery. Orlan replies to questions beamed in from all over the world while surgeons energetically mutilate her ear. The procedures are riveting because they’re so incongruous, yet so real.
When Madonna and Orlan were both guests on a French TV talkshow, Orlan presented the singer with a piece of jewelry containing morsels removed from her cheeks. “It looks like caviar,” notes a thrilled Madonna, adding, “I’ll always cherish it.”
Tech aspects vary from ragged to decent, but get the job done just fine, given the topic at hand.